Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Carol Robbins’ Jazz Play

Jazz Play
By Carol Robbins
Jazzcats JCTS-105

Many would be hard-pressed to name a harpist outside of the Marx Brothers, let alone a jazz harpist. Yet jazz experts could rattle off the names of Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby, demonstrating jazz’s hospitality to more exotic instrumentation. Carol Robbins is a former protégé of Ashby, establishing a unique lineage for the instrument in jazz. Jazz Play is her third CD, and it makes a good case for the jazz harp.

Jazz Play is dominated by a late-night-into-early-morning mood, with Robbins’ harp meshing well with her sidemen. Her attack on tunes like “Buddy’s Bite” is actually more percussive than the rhapsodic cascades one expects from the harp. She generously shares the solo spotlight, featuring Steve Huffsteter’s warm flugelhorn on the lushly romantic original “Still Light.” It is representative of the moody, relaxed feeling of Jazz Play, over half of which consists of Robbins originals. The standards are well chosen, including a rendition of John Lewis’s “Skating in Central Park” that highlights Bob Sheppard’s tenor, furthering the cool blue feeling of the set.

Perhaps her most interesting theme is the moody Latinesque tune “Tangiers.” Strong, focused solos by Robbins and Sheppard on soprano keep the energy for this tune elevated above the generally laidback level of the overall CD. While the nature of the harp may lend itself to such an approach, some listeners might prefer a few more up-tempo tunes for the sake of variety.

Throughout the session, there is strong interplay between the musicians. On “Sollevare” for instance, Robbins and guitarist Larry Koonse blend so closely, it takes close listening to tell where one set of strings comes in and the other comes out. The supportive rhythm of Darek Oles on bass and Tim Pleasant on drums keeps everything swinging nicely (but politely), despite the relaxed mood of the set.

The jazz harp tradition may not be the most celebrated, but Carol Robbins keeps it alive with Jazz Play. Surely Dorothy Ashby would approve.