28 September 2008

Elegantly sassy

Elegantly sassy is how Mary Doumany described the tunes she was playing last night at the Gods. It suited her performance, as well. Harp is not an instrument I immediately think of in the jazz context, but the Australian Harp Festival was in town for its third biennial get together, and there seemed to be a real strength of jazz and folk interest to supplement the obvious classical bent. I met Mary before the concert and she spoke of playing with the likes of Jeremy Alsop, Paul Grabowski and David Jones. That’s an impressive CV for any player, jazz or otherwise. Also, I’d noticed she was giving a workshop in jazz harp the following day (along with our local Sally Greenaway). She told me it would be mainly concerned with the blues, and given her accompanying vocals, this woman obviously had a broad palette to draw from.

Elegantly sassy was a perfect description. Mary played an alternating mix of instrumental tunes, presumably from her solo harp CD, Elemental, and American popular song, mainly Cole Porter (I get a kick out of you, Let’s fall in love, Night and day, I concentrate on you, Anything goes). The popular song was presented seriously, thoughtfully, perhaps more earnestly than Cole Porter himself may have done, but the cleverness of the lyrics and the composition supported this rendering. I enjoyed the Cole Porter tunes: they are masterpieces, and delightfully tuneful. The instrumentals were presumably more true to the harp repertoire. They seemed variously moody and inventive. A MD original called Spirit seemed to move from mystically floating five time to rapidly arpeggiated six. Another MD original, Fire, sounded of Spain and Arabic harmonies. As times, I thought of films of the 50s or thereabouts, which seemed to commonly feature harp washes in their soundtracks. But I particularly liked a ring-in, the country ballad, Miss Otis regrets. Mary pared this down to a bass pedal accompanied by a sensitively improvised vocal melody line that expressed a jazz sensibility. I also heard this jazz sensibility elsewhere, in some intriguing scales on this most delicate of instruments, in a rendering of blues chords, and in a story of a classical listener who observed that she didn’t play exactly as written in her published charts. But there was still that approach which we know and love from the harp: fast, repeating scalar fragments or arpeggiated runs, sometimes with an embedded melody, other times with a sharp and clear melody overlaid and ringing like a classical guitar. Mary was sassy enough to finish with requests: that memorable ballad, Smoke gets in your eyes, and that quintessentially common jazz number, Summertime. Someone likened her to Blossom Dearie after the concert, but I’d been thinking Patricia Barber. Either way, these are worthy references.

And I learnt various things about the harp. The red strings are Cs and the brown strings are Fs, and the strings are like the white notes on a piano. There are lots of coloured strings, so it’s got a large range. Apparently, it extends over 4 octaves below middle C. Strings are variously nylon, gut or wound. There are seven pedals, one each for a note, each allowing sharp, natural or flat settings for that note. Mary had to tune up during the session, so it’s obviously a sensitive instrument, although she said it’s solid (“like a piece of furniture”). I now find a pedal harp weighs 34kg.

So, it was a new experience for me. Pleasant and mellifluous, as you’d expect, with nostalgic reminiscences and a satisfying, romantic, even hypnotic atmosphere. A very nice twist on the jazz idiom.


Anonymous said...

"Miss Otis Regrets" a country ballad?!?! Somehow I don't think that's what Cole Porter intended...

Anonymous said...

I've seen and heard Mary Doumany myself....in Melbourne. Her performances are unforgettable....but what's this SASSY?? It's about time people knew that SHE makes the harp sexy!