SJM Editor Charlie Anderson spoke to jazz harpist Alina Bzhezhinska about her upcoming album, Inspiration, ahead of her appearance at The Verdict on Friday 18th May, 2018.
Why did you choose to play the harp?
“I started playing the harp when I was 7, out of pure vanity. I really loved how it looked. It was big and gold and nobody wanted to touch it so I just decided, ‘I’m going to be the first’. That was in a music school in Ukraine and then when I moved to study at a music academy in Warsaw, at the age of 19, that was the first time that I heard different styles available on the harp, including jazz. I was very fascinated by this but I never thought that I would be able to even master to this level, that I would be able to improvise freely and write my own music. So at that time it was total fascination but I never connected it to the music that I did at that time. But I loved modern music. I loved contemporary classical music. I played a lot of performances around the world. Being in Warsaw and later in Germany, that’s when I first started playing a little bit of jazz as well. That was about 15 years ago and I went to study with Dr. Carrol McLaughlin at the University of Arizona, USA and I did my masters there. That was my first serious introduction to jazz and when I moved back to Europe I just played as a soloist a lot. I lived in Scotland for 12 years and played with wonderful Scottish musicians in their projects, like award-winning singer Niki King. I still work with her. Later on I was ready to start my own project and I moved to London for that. I looked around and found some really wonderful musicians who believed in me and my music. They were quite keen to try something that not many people had done before, and that’s how it started.”
I remember seeing you about a year ago at The Verdict. And since then you’ve done that big concert at the London Jazz Festival.
“I actually found a poster from The Verdict, it was exactly a year ago. It was the first time I played with the quartet the way it is now. It was the first time that Larry Bartley joined us. Tony Kofi was already working with me on some smaller, more intimate, duet projects which involved some original compositions and jazz standards. Then we expanded into a trio with Australian drummer and percussionist Joel Prime. And then at The Verdict we played with Larry for the first time and that was the band that I really felt the most comfortable with, so I took it from there. A year later, we’ve been through quite a lot of beautiful things already.”
Your new album Inspiration. How did that come about?
“The album Inspiration is called that for a reason. It goes directly to that wonderful couple, Alice and John Coltrane who I was very fascinated by. Not just their musical achievements and connection with each other musically but also their personal life, which was very short but very intense and beautiful.”
“Last year was the 50th anniversary of John Coltrane’s death and Alice Coltrane anniversary, she died 10 years before but it was also the 80th anniversary of her birthday. That triple anniversary gave me an idea. You know when you read something and connect something at a certain time and certain place, and all things suddenly come together. That’s what it was. I’ve got this book about Alice Coltrane and I’ve started writing my own little article, which is quite a long article which was published last year in a couple of magazines, about Alice Coltrane. But then I realised that her music wasn’t heard live for a very long time. Apart from Brandee Younger, I don’t know of anybody who is actually reviving her music and playing it live. Maybe a few people but not very thoroughly. So I studied her work before that for a couple of years and then last year I really decided to dig into it deeply. And also, with the help of my musicians, I revised the music of John Coltrane and adopted it to the harp, which I think works really well, especially one of his compositions we recorded, After the Rain, because it can be recreated on the harp beautifully. That’s because the harp naturally imitates the sound of nature and I thought that the tune was almost meant to be recorded on the harp."
"So that’s how it all started: with my fascination with Coltrane, then I started to try more of my own music. The album came together in December. We recorded ten compositions. Half of them are Alice Coltrane (or music inspired or based on her music), some of John Coltrane’s, and the rest are mine, which was also inspired by them and generally all the music and life experience that I’ve had, it all went in to this album. So it’s like a summary for me, for the journey that I’ve done so far. It’s the next step to something else, something new.”
So you’re going to be touring the new album?
“Yes, the album is officially released on 1st June. We have a lovely preview gig at Toulouse Lautrec on 1st June and then 15th June will be our CD launch at The Vortex and after that we do the tour. We’re playing a couple of festivals, including the Glasgow Jazz Festival and the Ilkley Jazz Festival in Yorkshire. We’re also doing the Elgar Rooms at the Albert Hall and hopefully Pizza Express later in the year. So there are some good venues involved and I hope that people will enjoy the music. So far we’ve managed to sell out every gig that we’ve played. That shows that people like it and I hope that will continue, especially now that we have done a CD, vinyl and digital download. I really tried to get all the different formats with my music.”
So what is next?
“No string is left! Every string is touched. Right now I’m working with Ubuntu Music. Martin Hummel, who is the director of Ubuntu, is very supportive and I learned so much from him in terms of the recording and producing of the album. I hope that Inspiration is just my first album and it will open the doors to some new collaborations because I already have the next project in my head. I want to celebrate the music of Dorothy Ashby who was another important musician, not just a harpist but a figure in jazz who worked with many famous jazz musicians and also had her own band. I want to revive her music. That’s something that I hope I will record in the next couple of years. But at the moment, Inspiration is like a new baby so I have to take care of it and love it very much and then see if I want to have another baby! I think I will.”
Is there anything else that you’d like to talk about?
“The other musicians. I think it’s really important to highlight their role in this album. It’s not that I’m lucky to have them, it’s more than that because the chemistry in the band is incredible. They’re not just knowledgable and talented, they’re also really supportive. There’s a lot of talk about women in jazz and women in general, in business and how women often suffer from being misunderstood or abused. And I really sympathise with these kinds of cases but I have to say that I’ve been incredibly fortunate having this wonderful man behind me, helping me musically and personally, and it’s just wonderful to work with them. There’s no problem that I’m a woman and I’m a bandleader. The respect for music is number one and the respect for each other. If I had different musicians it would probably never be the same experience so I’m really fortunate to have them. And that’s not just my album, it’s also their album and their achievements in different styles of music. They really love it too.”
I really enjoyed the gig that you did at The Verdict a year ago.
“I really enjoyed the gig at The Verdict too! The audience was amazing. For me, at that time, very few people knew my name and actually coming out with this project of jazz harp and an unpronounceable name, I tell you, I wasn’t too nervous but I didn’t know if we will sell well. And seeing people queuing and not finding empty seats was just incredible. And the warmth of the audience was great. So I’m looking forward to performing there again. I think it’s going to be incredible because we’re so tight. We’re not a different band but a much more confident band now and it really comes across. We have so much love to share and I think the audience always gets it. The audience at The Verdict definitely got it last time so I think this time will also be wonderful.”
Alina Bzhezhinska performs at The Verdict, Brighton on Friday 18th May, 2018 with Tony Kofi, Larry Bartley and Joel Prime.
The album Inspiration is out now on Ubuntu.
(Photo of Alina Bzhezhinska by Serhiy Horobets)