interview: Alina Bzhezhinska \\ The jazz harp renaissance

26th October 2018

The harp is having a jazz renaissance and Alina Bzhezhinska is an integral part of that story. In London, the popularity of live harp performances is growing. Tori Handsley has been thriving with her own releases and a feature on the latest Binker and Moses album, ‘Alive in the East?’. Meanwhile, Brandee Younger, who featured on Lauryn Hill’s twenty year old classic ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’, recently performed for Church of Sound with a collection of harp tracks of both her own and others’. 

Currently, it’s Alina Bzhezhinska who has our attention drawn towards the harp, for her original touch and quirky flair. Released in May this year, ‘Inspiration’ is an album dedicated to the real life love story of John and Alice Coltrane. She’s also been exploring the repertoire of Dorothy Ashby, leading to performances at Dalston’s Brilliant Corners and at Spice of Life in Soho for London Jazz Festival. We take a few minutes with Bzhezhinska to dig deep. 

Tell us about how you began playing the harp? What drew you to it? Did you play other instruments first?

I grew up in a musical family. We travelled a lot and I had many opportunities to perform on stage from the age of four. First it was singing, then playing the piano — my Mum started to teach me when I was five — and two years later I went to a music school where I saw this amazing looking gold instrument with multiple strings and it looked so special and exclusive. I hadn’t even heard the harp before but I decided this was the instrument for me. Vanity? Maybe, but I couldn’t help it. Another thing was my stubbornness; no one from my year of school would dare to touch it. We were told we were too young to learn the harp in primary school. And I always wanted to be a grown up. ‘Mission Impossible’ became my favourite film — so you can imagine this little harpist with attitude.

Is there anything you love about playing the harp, that you’ve not been able to explore with other instruments?

I play two instruments professionally, piano and harp, but I am very curious about sound in general and it fascinates me what people can do on their instruments. I am absolutely convinced that the harp is one of most diverse instruments, if not the most. We can play beautiful melodies on it but can also imitate the sound of nature; wind, thunder storms, raindrops, the sounds of different animals and birds. By bending the strings we can make some crazy, scary noise and the soundboard can be used as a percussive instrument; by using pedal sides we can make the harp sound totally like a jazz instrument.

You’ve been interpreting the works of Alice and John Coltrane, as well as Dorothy Ashby. When it comes to arranging and re-presenting well known works, how do you put your own spin onto it?

I like geeking out about music and I like finding out as much as I can about the pieces I learn and their composers. For example, if I hadn’t known about John Coltrane’s love story, I would never have understood Alice’s devotion to John and his music; or if I hadn’t found out that Dorothy Ashby’s dad was a jazz guitarist, I wouldn’t know where her guitar-like bass lines came from. I respect the music I interpret but I always need to find my own language to speak out. I combine my knowledge of classical music and jazz and I mix it with innovative harp techniques. That’s how I make my signature style. Through my instrument I can talk about anything. It gives me a real freedom.

When composing your own music, apart from other musicians, what inspires you? 

I started composing only a few years ago. I got really inspired when I listened to Alice Coltrane’s musical expression on the harp. She made me feel brave and even more adventurous with my own creativity. Music comes into my head when I have a very strong feeling about something or somebody, and I wrote several tunes for my latest album ‘Inspiration’.

‘Annoying Semitones’ came out after I had an argument with a friend who could be truly annoying sometimes. We made up and I don’t even remember what it was about; but it was a strong feeling inside me that moved me to express it on the harp, and a pretty cool tune appeared. 

I wrote ‘Spero’ (Hope) after reading the poem ‘Contra Spem Spero’ (I hope against hope), by the incredible nineteenth century Ukrainian female poet, Lesia Ukrainka. She was terminally ill but she never lost hope. Hope is a powerful word when we really connect to it.

Alina Bzhezhinska plays London Jazz Festival 2018

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