While the majority of playes discussed in mainstream jazz circles play... well, "mainstream" instruments, there are a few performers who have truly made their distinct voices heard on instruments on the jazz periphery. Carol Robbins, a jazz harpist, is one such talent today.
There is always the danger of giving either too much or not enough credit to the player of such a rare instrument due to its novelty, but Robbins's musicianship is not just for a "niche" audience; her lyricism and technique are apparent to any jazz fan. Born in Chicago, Robbins grew up in Los Angeles and was initially trained on the piano. After discovering jazz improvisation, she took up the harp and began studying with jazz's best known harpist, Dorothy Ashby. Today, Robbins is the jazz world's premier harpist and a notable talent across genres for her studio work (her resume includes performances alongside artists as varied as Bjork, Brian Wilson, Linda Rondstadt and Nina Simone).
Her newest release Jazz Play features several original compositions as well as standards with performances from some L.A. studio staples: guitarist Larry Koonse, trumpeter Steve Huffsteter, reedman Bob Sheppard, bassist Darek Oles and drummer Tim Pleasant. Tracks like "Buddy's Bite" and "Tangier" showcase her lyrical writing as well as some tender harp solos that alternate between single-note lines and chord melody. Sheppard's soprano solo on the latter tune sings with clarity (both of tone and construction), and Huffsteter spins a thoughtful solo on muted trumpet on the former. "Sollevare" is another Robbins original with its bright melody over breezy harmonies (Koonse's tone hints a bit at John Abercrombie here during his solo). The string instruments give a rendition of Jobim's "O Grande Amor" with Oles and Pleasant subtly pushing the group along underneath, and the classic "Skating in Central Park" gets a jaunty but gentle reading with a mellow tenor solo from Sheppard.
In addition to Robbins's striking gift for melody, what's special about this album is the eerie yet pacific vibe about it. The combination of guitar and harp strings invokes a mannered, classical sound that contrasts perfectly with the horns. Plus, the absence of piano keeps the music open, creating a spacious atmosphere that lets Robbins's musicianship shine through.
Buy Jazz Play.
Also, check out her work on Billy Childs's recent Grammy-nominated album, Lyric.