A few years ago, I had one of the most powerful live music experiences of my life when I went to see Stevie Wonder on his Songs in the Key of Life Tour. He delivered one of the greatest collections of musical material ever composed and performed at the highest level with the emotion, energy, and musicality of a true master.
The band was massive: two drummers, three guitarists, bass, two or three other keyboardists behind him, a full string section with a conductor, a horn section, backup singers, plus India.Arie sitting in as a featured guest vocalist.
The only thing missing was a harp. And this was going to be a problem because, soon, it came time to play the album’s classic vocal-and-harp duet, “If It’s Magic.”
Wonder confidently explained that he felt that harpist Dorothy Ashby should not be replaced, so this song would feature the only pre-recorded track of the evening. As he sang, a picture of Ashby was projected upon the screen, looking out over the crowd. Despite the size of the venue — the Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore — and the awkward singalong situation, this “duet” captivated the large audience and was both intimate and moving, even without the live presence of the harpist.
Ashby’s playing was just that special.
Here’s a video from this tour‘s stop in Dallas in which Wonder introduces the same song, explaining that Ashby was “singing with her harp.”
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By the time Dorothy Ashby recorded with Wonder, the Detroit-born harpist was already living in Los Angeles and playing on recording sessions with a long list of pop and R&B artists, including Bill Withers, Minnie Riperton, Aretha Franklin, and so many others. “If It’s Magic” is only three minutes and 12 seconds of music recorded in one day over the course of a career that spanned 30-something years, but here it was representing Ashby in a special tribute in front of tens of thousands of fans every night on a national tour.
So, I guess this is as good a place as any to begin exploring Ashby’s music.
Ashby was not only a high-profile session player, she also led a rich career as a composer and recording artist, releasing albums that ranged from straight-ahead jazz to jazz-funk and soul and covers of pop songs. And even though the legacy of innovation and experimentation with the harp as an open-ended instrument worth bringing out of the rusty cages of the classical orchestra perhaps belongs more definitively to Alice Coltrane, Ashby had already done a lot of that work years before Coltrane ever set foot into a studio.
Her discography shows the progression of an artist fighting against preconceived notions of the harp’s place in improvised music. On her early records, The Jazz Harpist (1957) and Hip Harp (1958), Ashby emerged as an iconoclast with a strong voice for jazz groove and improvisation.
On the occasion of what would have been her 87th birthday this weekend, here’s a quick overview of her recorded work.
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The Jazz Harpist (1957)
Hip Harp (1958)
Her evolution continued over the course of records such as the eponymous Dorothy Ashby (1961) and The Fantastic Jazz Harp of Dorothy Ashby (1965). On 1968’s Afro-Harping, Ashby’s music showed a decisive stylistic change as she moved away from the jazz-group format. Paired with producer and arranger Richard Evans, they created a trio of funky, soulful records that found her stretching out, even playing koto and singing, too.
Dorothy’s Harp (1969)
The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby (1970)
By the time the ’70s rolled around, Ashby was living in LA and her recording work was focused mostly on other artists’ sessions. But then in 1984, Ashby released two intimate solo harp records of mostly jazz standards, Django/Misty and Concierto de Aranjuez. She passed away shortly after this burst of creative output in 1986.
Ashby’s work has been heavily sampled by hip-hop artists such as J Dilla (below), GZA, Flying Lotus, and many others. In addition to Stevie Wonder’s traveling tribute, harpist Brandee Younger has carried on in the tradition set forth by Ashby, performing tributes and recording her own modernized version of “Afro Harping.”
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