In 1958, jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby teamed with flutist Frank Wess, bassist Herman Wright, and drummer Roy Haynes on the Prestige/New Jazz album, In a Minor Groove. In 1992, when Prestige reissued it as a compilation with some tracks from an earlier album, Hip Harp, Michael G. Nastos of AllMusic, wrote that Ashby “strummed the harp like nobody else,” adding that the recording is further enhanced by “the exceptional flute sounds produced by Frank Wess.”
On March 10, 2013, harpist Riza Printup performed at a Jazz Vespers concert at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. In preparation for the concert, she reached out to Wess, “I really wanted to start bringing back the music of Dorothy Ashby. I asked Frank if he would be willing to do it, and he said yes. He remembered meeting Dorothy, but he didn’t remember making any of the recordings. He asked me to do all the arrangements and select the tunes. That was really special. We played a lot of the tunes from In a Minor Groove, and somehow it all came back to him. I will never forget that. I think this was one of the very last things he did, and he was so gracious.” (Wess passed away on October 31, 2013, at the age of 91).
Printup, who will be leading a trio at Teaneck’s Brvsh Cul7ur3 on Saturday, December 16, studied classical harp at Indiana University but took some jazz courses taught by the late David Baker, a trombonist/cellist who founded the jazz studies program at Indiana’s Jacobs School of Music. “There weren’t any courses for a jazz harpist,” Printup recalled. “I initially asked if I could do a double major, but, because of the course load and nature of the program, they said no. I just took the courses anyway. I took his Improv 101 classes, and, of course, he started off with bebop. He was so gracious and really had patience with me. I took piano lessons, jazz history, any class that I could fit in with my course load.”
Jazz and classical, Printup explained, “are completely different. In classical harp, everything is written out – every note, every phrasing, every fingering. And, with the harp we have seven pedals. When it comes to playing even something as simple as ‘Happy Birthday’, everybody freaks out – ‘what pedal is that’? In jazz, it really comes down to the theory, understanding jazz theory. Then, from there, learning to navigate around the harp. So, now you go from everything written out to absolutely nothing written out because it changes. If you play a melody one way and then add an accidental or semi-chromatic line, all of a sudden everything changes with the pedals. You can play your chords one way one day and then the next day, or even the next performance, you change the harmony of it or add extensions on these chords, and your pedals change.
“So, it went from just trying to memorize everything in the classical realm to now understanding theory at a much deeper level. It’s apples and oranges. Diving into the lessons of jazz,” she added, “really helped me to understand my instrument better and get to know my instrument on a much deeper level.”
At Brvsh Cul7ur3, Printup will be joined by bassist Kengo Nakamura and drummer Alvester Garnett. “It’s like a piano trio,” Printup said, “but with the harp. There will be swing. There will be ballads. All kinds of different rhythms. And, because it’s in December, I will be incorporating holiday tunes. It will be a blend of standards, holiday songs, ballads and some of my originals. What I bring is tunes that I love and my interpretations of them.”
Printup is married to jazz trumpeter Marcus Printup, and in March 2020, they released an album, Gentle Rain, on the Steeplechase label. It features just the two of them without any other instrumentation. Reviewing it for JazzTimes, Veronica Johnson wrote that, “Marcus Printup is known to many as the fiery trumpeter adjacent to Wynton Marsalis in his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra . . . But he’s just as powerful on a ballad. Those balladry skills are well displayed by Gentle Rain, for which he’s backed solely by a harp, eloquently played by his wife Riza – a daring configuration that’s rarely been attempted in jazz.” When Riza plays with Marcus, she said she just wants “to dig in more. He just elevates the level of playing from the get-go. He will challenge me.”
The Printups have created a jazz education program, called RiMarcable Music for Arts & Education. It’s based on a concept called “I Have a Song Inside My Heart”, which is designed to help early childhood and lower elementary school students become empowered in self-expression through the music of jazz. The curriculum is available to all general education music teachers. “We also do in-school residencies,” Printup explained, “which I’m doing now with the Montclair Community Pre-K (a private non-profit preschool) through a partnership with Jazz House Kids.” The program, she said, “takes the first six major areas of jazz. We start with the blues, then we go to New Orleans, then swing, bebop, Afro-Cuban jazz, and hard bop. The goal is not to teach them repertoire per se but to include the repertoire as we are learning about history.”
On Sunday, December 9, Printup and her Jazz Explorer band will be presenting a community concert, in collaboration with WBGO-FM, at the Montclair Art Museum. The concert, which is free, is being held from 1-2 p.m. It’s open to all ages, but, of course, is targeted to pre-K and younger elementary school students.
Printup thinks people “have a misconception about what the harp can do. There are harpists today – like Brandee Younger and Edmar Castaneda — who have the courage to dive a little more deeply into this art form. We’re all doing our own thing, and now people are getting to know more about what the harp can do, and how it can contribute to this art form.”
For information and to order tickets to the December 16th Brvsh Cul7ur3 performances log onto brvshcul7ur3.com or call (201) 357-5745. – SANFORD JOSEPHSON