Alina Bzhezhinska Explores Past, Future of Jazz Harp


Alina Bzhezhinska currently is at work on a project that honors the music of Dorothy Ashby, another harpist who worked within the jazz idiom.

(Photo: Steven Cropper)

Hailing from a firmly classical background, it was in part a discovery of Alice Coltrane’s work that helped steer Alina Bzhezhinska—a Ukrainian-Polish harpist, composer and bandleader—in daring new directions.

With her harp solidly planted in London’s fertile jazz community, she first approached Alice’s work through an invitation by saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, who asked Bzhezhinska to contribute to a performance of Coltrane’s “Blue Nile.” On her album Inspiration (Ubuntu), Bzhezhinska deftly covers the song alongside a host of other numbers from the cosmic harpist’s Impulse! and Warner Bros. catalog. She also includes a take on John Coltrane’s “After The Rain,” plus a sprinkling of her own original compositions fueled by the spirited legacies of these intertwined jazz giants. Inspiration is propelled by an adept band that sounds totally on board with Bzhezhinska’s arc toward transcendence. The bandleader’s also planned a recorded tribute to harpist Dorothy Ashby. But with Inspiration out in the universe, Bzhezhinska took time to share reflections of her musical journey with DownBeat.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Starting in a meta way, what was the inspiration behind Inspiration?

Last year was the year of Alice Coltrane’s 80th birthday and the 10th year since she died. Her husband, John Coltrane, died 50 years ago. I thought it would be wonderful to celebrate this massive anniversary, so I started digging deeply into their legacy. I studied their music and learned about their private life.

I think it’s quite a unique combination, what they had. Alice understood John’s idea of universal music, of free-jazz. When they met, the magic happened. They connected immediately on so many levels—musically, spiritually, and also being physically attracted to each other. That combination doesn’t happen so often. I got beautiful musicians to work with me, who were also inspired by the idea. Then I started writing my own stuff, being inspired by the Coltranes’ music.

Do you remember the first time you heard Alice’s music and how it impacted you?

I would love to say I fell in love with her music from first sight, but that’s not what happened. I was not ready.

Being classically trained with lots of rules, it was difficult for me to understand the freedom she had in her music. I was almost scared to even approach music like that. Then something magical happened; I just got it. I started deconstructing the ideas that she had. I thought it was very complex, but actually in the end, it’s quite simple. She doesn’t use too much technique—just beautiful glissandi and strokes of the instrument. The deep thing is the kind of language she uses to express her ideas. That’s what was crucial for me to understand.

How do you simultaneously pay tribute to their music and make it your own?

I really respect the music and tried to stay faithful to the material, but if I would do note-by-note transcriptions, that wouldn’t be jazz. Alice’s music isn’t written, anyway. So, I listened to her albums, took mental notes and sometimes played along. Then I tried to find my own way of expressing what I heard. When I was ready, I took it to my band. We played, improvised, learned certain passages and then just made the music our own.

Alice Coltrane and Ashby were important in bringing harp into the realm of jazz, but it’s still an uncommon lead instrument. How do you hope to aid its progress?

I think harp is a very jazz instrument because it has so many abilities—using the sound board like percussion, bending strings, making noises of animals, thunderstorms and waterfalls. In the last 10 years, harp has become more popular among youngsters who want to play jazz and pop music. I see harp involved in more jazz festivals. It’s taken more seriously now. Jazz harpists are all connected and we support each other. Most of us have our individual styles, and we can contribute in different ways. Of course, Coltrane and Ashby showed us 50, 60 years ago that this instrument has its place in jazz.

What was the approach to the originals on Inspiration, and how did you see them coexisting with the Coltrane material?

Alice and John were expressing their feelings through music without worries about how they would fit within any kind of style. John even said, “I don’t play jazz. I play John Coltrane.” This was very encouraging for me. They showed that anything is possible. If you know what you want to say, just express it. That’s the biggest inspiration I got from them: the courage of being a musician and speaking my own language without being afraid of judgement.

My inspiration also comes from everyday life—pieces of music I hear, situations I’m in, people I know, art I see or poems I read. That’s how my compositions appeared. Every piece is personal and has its own little story. I express myself through music and I’m fortunate to do it through the harp.

Inspiration was a very important step in my musical and my personal life. Studying Alice Coltrane taught me many things as an individual, a woman artist, a mother and a bandleader. She is my inspiration. I think it’s necessary for harpists who want to find their own style to study what’s already been laid down for us. DB

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