Currently on a nationwide tour, Alina Bzhezhinska is presenting Irish audiences with a chance to experience the extraordinary potential and versatility of the harp in jazz, writes RTÉ lyric fm's Ellen Cranitch.

It's everywhere. From the coins in your pocket, to the beer in your local, to the horrid brown envelopes that always seem to arrive just after the Christmas blow-out. Brian Ború used his to calm the nerves before taking on hairy marauders. Several national festivals are devoted solely to it, and some even believe it will get you into heaven on your own wings. Being the national symbol of Ireland, we can be excused for feeling a bit of proprietorial ownership of The Harp. Our dance music sits so comfortably on it, and at the end of last year, Irish harping joined ranks with uilleann piping and hurling on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, no less! The more formal concert harp, with seven pedals to allow for alteration of string length, and thus key change, in orchestral and recital settings, is also soothingly familiar, though often the butt of so many (sometimes hilarious, sometimes scarily accurate) caricature clichés.

Watch: Introducing The Alina Bzhezhinska Quartet

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But Jazz Harp? Two words that don't often appear together for sure, but this Music Network tour by the Alina Bzhezhinska Quartet will present Irish audiences with a chance to experience the extraordinary potential and versatility of this instrument, and celebrate the profound legacy of two women whose names and histories should be on every music student's radar, but sadly are not.

Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby were jazz harpists, pianists, improvisers and composers. Pioneers, ground-breakers and powerhouses of creative energy at a time when the jazz world was dominated by men, and a woman in jazz was more often than not taken to mean singing standards in a sparkly frock and occasionally being allowed shake a tambourine. But the reality is that right from the 1920s, female jazz musicians, composers and bandleaders had been holding their own. And if their impressive output of compositions, recordings and performances did not achieve the fame and fandom of their male counterparts, they more than matched them in quality.

Watch: The Alina Bzhezhinska Quartet play Lemky by Alina Bzhezhinska

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Lil Hardin Armstrong wrote countless hits, played piano, led her own band, and was crucial to the rise of her husband Louis to stardom. All-girl big bands such as The International Sweethearts of Rhythm led by Anna Mae Winburn, toured the Jim Crow-sodden US in the 1940s and 50s, their members often paying the price of a night in jail for being 'international' enough to include women from all ethnic backgrounds in the band. Pianists such as Mary Lou Williams, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Marian McPartland and many others were following their own creative path, and clearing another one for the generations of female jazz musicians coming after them.

Listen: Alina Bzhezhinska talks to RTÉ Arena

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Such as Alina. At the tender age of five, she witnessed a concert harp being manoeuvred by three burly men through a courtyard, and that was the moment she decided, "that's the instrument for me". Following the standard formal music education route, she acquired all the technique, and the theoretical and practical understanding of the instrument, and though she loved the repertoire and playing in orchestras, something was missing. "I had started a long journey with the harp, a love-hate relationship, but I gave up playing for a while because I never felt that I could express myself properly through the pieces I was learning. They were other people's music, and it came to me eventually when I started playing in rock bands, that I could experiment... I started learning on the job, playing with sax players, trumpeters, guitarists. I began to find my own expression, my own voice".

Listen to Inspiration by Alina Bzhezhinska, via Spotify

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Finding one's own voice is crucial for any musician. For an improviser perhaps even more so, as they face the challenge of balancing the influence of a role model against the need to break from what has gone before. Alina discovered through her studies in the US two extraordinary role models in Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby. Both of these women had forged considerable careers, despite the triple whammy of being harpists, female and black.

Alice had, with her husband John, redefined the classic Coltrane sound, replacing McCoy Tyner in his band (she was also a formidable pianist) for the final years of John's life. The spirituality and transcendent beauty that emerged and had its apotheosis in the 1964 album A Love Supreme, was in many ways informed by their relationship, with John consulting closely with his wife on much of the album’s creative impetus. After his death, she continued to write, record and perform, following through on the intense and unwavering religious faith that had informed so much of their lives. Her retreat into the world of meditation and ashram living yielded many chant based compositions and devotional musical works.

Alina at The Barbican, London (Pic: Tatiana Golilovski)

If you want to hear an example of the sweet phrasing and intelligent musicality of Dorothy Ashby, look no further than Stevie Wonder's If It's Magic, from the 1976 album, Songs In The Key Of Life. Just voice and harp, it is a clear illustration of Dorothy's sensitive and seductive sound, and why she became the go-to session harpist in the LA studio orchestras. Her quiet doggedness and of course her improvising skills as a young musician in the 1950s led to her being accepted into the forbidding world of be-bop, proving, as Alina puts it, "that the harp is not just a vibey little background instrument, it’s tough, it’s strong, it’s like an orchestra itself."

But be-bop on the harp? That's a lot of leg-work right there. "Well, you have to co-ordinate the body movement, but that’s what harpists do anyway," says Alina. "All the semitones, chord changes, and seven pedals can affect the speed of playing, but other things are very possible – bending notes, using enharmonic changes – it can be complicated but there's always a way to work it out and understand what you're trying to do. Sometimes people are scared of putting the harp into a jazz context because it’s not regarded as a jazz instrument, but I totally disagree. You see a lot more harp writing in pop/rock recordings, and not just as a colour, but as a main instrument. Young players are interested in experimenting. There’s a bit of a harp renaissance".

"I started learning on the job, playing with sax players, trumpeters, guitarists.
I began to find my own expression, my own voice." (Pic: Serhiy Horobets)

So on this tour can we expect some new compositions? "Well, if we've time! There's so much between the music of Alice and Dorothy, plus some of the people who played with John Coltrane, like Joe Henderson and Pharoah Sanders. But yes, my own compositions are always connected to a state of mind, a feeling, an emotional response. They are very personal and usually tell a story. We’re aiming for a nice variety of styles." I mention that Tony Kofi, saxophonist with her band, sounds very like John Coltrane in tone. "He’ll be thrilled with that! You know, I heard him before I saw him, in an old-fashioned jazz club where it was super dark, and I heard that beautiful pure sound. He had never played with a harp before, so was really open to experimentation. We knew it was going to be something special."

The legacy of Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby is central to Alina’s way of thinking and playing, and she is passionate about trying to bring this to the wider public, through her performing, and her teaching in Goldsmiths University. Dispelling the notion that harp is genteel and angelic, she explores the darker and tougher colours of this beast, acknowledging that yes, harpists are lovely and glamourous, but they also have to back up the 4 X 4 to the stage door, and be a technician and a bodybuilder too. Angel wings and a weightlifter’s belt. Now that’s glamour.

Alina Bzhezhinska, Tony Kofi, Larry Bartley & Joel Prime are on tour with Music Network from 5 - 15 February, with concerts in Dublin, Cork, Bray, Tinahely, Portlaoise, Clifden, Wexford, Carrick-On-Shannon, Ennis and Letterkenny - find out more here.