Jazz music tends to be played on a fairly well-defined set of instruments. The bagpipes, accordion, cimbalom, any sort of double-reed instrument… there are plenty of things that just don’t pop up that often, and when they do they are used sometimes only for a novelty effect. Harpist Dorothy Ashby and flautist Frank Wess bring together two such rarely played instruments for what turns out to be an impressive hard bop album, In a Minor Groove. The mood is that of a hip, bohemian club (sort of a whole album along the lines of Sun Ra‘s “Lullaby for Realville” or maybe some early Eric Dolphy recordings). The delicate timbres of the harp and flute contrast with the punchy qualities of the drums and acoustic bass, giving the music an inherent interest even when rooted in familiar hard bop structures. Yet the players don’t content themselves with merely offering some unusual instrumentation. The playing is superb. Ashby was widely regarded as the best harpist in jazz. Her and Wess play with assurance. Drummer Roy Haynes is particularly effective. He lays back and uses brushes a lot, with embellishments limited to just a slightly harder attack now and then. But his happy-sounding and very understated performances is perfect for the music. This is forward-looking bop, and about as good as “inside” music of the era got.
Dorothy Ashby’s second album expands upon her debut. It’s jazz firmly in the hard bop mode, yet striving to do something different with the sub-genre. She deploys some of the same techniques as she used on The Jazz Harpist before to imitate a guitar and sweep the strings on her harp to play glissandos. But now it sounds a bit more purposeful, like she has more to express than just getting across those little tricks. Flautist Frank Wess is with her again. He plays more fluidly than on the debut, though his tone is a little harsh.
Dorothy Ashby’s debut album as a leader The Jazz Harpist gives a taste of what was to come from the woman who seems to be unanimously regarded as the greatest jazz harpist. But at the same time this recording relies a bit too much on the novelty of having a harp in a jazz setting. It wallows in a few gimmicks. She uses two in particular on many of the songs: the stereotypical harp glissando (sweep) and imitation of guitar. For the latter, she strums and plays a few melodic notes, which gives the impression of two guitarists. It is kind of a neat trick, but she doesn’t do that much with it. Her frequent collaborator Frank Wess is here, though his playing on flute is a little stiff compared to on the pair’s later recordings. Ashby would just get better over her next few albums, exploring hard bop and cool jazz idioms, before she would take a turn toward soul jazz and eastern-flavored spiritual jazz.