Ukrainian harpist Alina Bzhezhinska has rocked the London jazz scene. With “Reflections” she now wants to go to mainland Europe.
In the classical orchestra pit, harps are almost always at the edge. Often on the far right, sometimes on the far left. But mostly away from the prominent musicians: inside close to the conductor’s podium. And yet the harp stands out. Because it is voluminous: it weighs around 40 kilograms and is bulky just because of its size, two meters.
In addition, the harp also looks pretty kitschy with its gilded and curved wooden frame, on which a total of 47 strings are stretched. And when they are the focus, for example when works by Wagner or Tchaikovsky are performed, then it is always the lyrical passages in which harps are used for a few bars with their sparkling soundtrack.
The Ukrainian artist Alina Bzhezhinska no longer puts her harp in the orchestra pit, but takes it to the big stage. Next to her is Julie Walkington on double bass and Adam Teixera behind the drums. Then a half-hour jam session begins.
Bzhezhinska repeatedly announces his own composition, but the session often seems spontaneously improvised, the trio is so much in dialogue with their instruments.
Occasional detours to hip hop
Since studying at the University of Arizona Conservatory in Tucson, Bzhezhinska has been exploring how well the harp and jazz can be thought and played together. The Ukrainian is actually a classical harpist by training. She also studied it at the Chopin Music Academy in Warsaw. In 2017, Bzhezhinska, who was already living in London at the time, became known when she performed with her quartet at the Barbican Center at the “London Jazz Festival”. Their acclaimed gig was nominated for Best Live Experience of the Year at the Jazz FM Awards.
The British press now calls her “one of the best contemporary harpists”, reminding me of great US jazz colleagues like Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane are close. Bzhezhinska works with well-known British jazz colleagues such as Django Bates. In 2018 her critically acclaimed debut album Inspiration was released and now follows Reflections, a new work recorded with her band, the HipHarp Collective.
Bzhezhinska was able to get saxophonist Tony Kofi, trumpeter Jay Phelps, Julie Walkington and Adam Teixera to work on her new songs. She mixes her own compositions with standards, remains connected to the instrumental with the exception of two short trips to songs with vocals. Occasionally she detours to hip hop, otherwise the Ukrainian artist remains true to jazz.
Even before she entered the conservatory in the early 2000s, she was involved in the Kiev jazz scene and appeared at jam sessions. Now she spreads her fan wide: from exciting improvised free jazz to melancholic-intimate moments, her sound is stylistically diverse and yet immediately recognizable.
Listening to the musical interaction between the classic jazz instruments bass, saxophone, trumpet and drums and the underdog instrument harp is extremely exciting for the jazz habit ear. You have to get used to the new sound signature. It is interesting how the distant relatives double bass and harp relate to each other.
The harp creates its sound space
The interaction of both plucked instruments sounds like a symbiosis, so the deep bass tones and the high harp tones act like the left and right hand on the piano. But also the drums, especially the hi-hat cymbals, create a sound field on which the harp can move with virtuosity. Interestingly enough, this leads to hearing the drums in a completely new way. When wind instruments come into play, they dominate the harp in terms of sound, but the harp wraps itself around the saxophone like a climbing rose and thus creates the sound space it needs.
Bzhezhinska stimulatingly expands the radius of what a harp can do, allowing one to rediscover this instrument in her music. Especially impressive in the piece “Alabama”, here Bzhezhinska has a long intro in which she manages to combine the reminiscence of the classical harp and her special jazz harp to an impressive sound symbiosis.
Since the war began on February 24, Alina Bzhezhinska and the HipHarpCollective have performed over 30 concerts, with proceeds going to the Art Therapy Center in Lutsk, Ukraine, and the Ukrainian Territorial Defense. So far, the equivalent of more than 35,000 euros have been collected. The next solidarity concert will take place in London on December 5th. On the continent you have to settle for their album for now.