Music Reviews
11:45 am
Tue June 12, 2012

Edmar Castaneda's 'Double Portion' Of Harp

Originally published on Tue June 12, 2012 12:46 pm

The Colombian harpist Edmar Castañeda was born in Bogotá, and began playing at 13. A few years later, in the mid-1990s, he moved to New York, where he studied jazz trumpet. Then he returned to the harp with a new perspective and set of skills.

A few groundbreaking harpists have popped up in jazz and improvised music, from Dorothy Ashby to Zeena Parkins. Now, they're joined by Castañeda, who plays both classical harp and the smaller, more portable Colombian folk model. His music draws on the traditional joropo music of the grasslands he absorbed early, as well as tango, Brazilian and flamenco guitar, West African kora and virtuoso jazz pianists like Art Tatum.

That's a fascinating mix, but his technique is the real astonishment. Castañeda juggles lead, rhythm and bass lines, using a variety of hard and soft string attacks to keep those voices distinct — all without giving up the groove.

Castañeda's new album, Double Portion, is a collection of solo and duet performances. His previous record was with his trio plus guests, but he doesn't need much help, playing bass runs with one hand and chords and melody with the other. On his new album, a duo with Brazilian mandolin player Hamilton de Holanda zeroes in on their stringed instruments' percussive side. Two duets with Puerto Rican alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón let Castañeda play the forceful accompanist. They hint at that swirly modal jazz John Coltrane and harpist Alice Coltrane loved, but this music is really about rhythm.

Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba takes a different tack in his two duets with Castañeda. Rubalcaba is a virtuoso, too, but the harpist plays so much, there's no point in them both showing off. Sometimes he slides piano in behind the harp, mimicking its softly plucked chords, dramatic runs and violent strumming effects. Rubalcaba reminds us that there's a harp hidden inside every piano.

When Edmar Castañeda references traditional Colombian melodies, he changes up the timing, the harmonies and the feeling — that is, he does the usual stuff jazz musicians do to borrowed material. His amazing technique on Double Portion raises the bar for every harpist, himself included. But I suspect Castañeda is already looking for ways to top what he does here.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

The Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda was born in Bogota and began playing at age 13. A few years later, in the mid-'90s, he moved to New York. There he studied jazz trumpet before returning to the harp with a new perspective and set of skills. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Castaneda makes you rethink what the instrument can do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC BY EDMAR CASTANEDA)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Edmar Castaneda, playing solo harp. The bass part is him, too. There have been a few groundbreaking harpists in jazz and improvised music, from Dorothy Ashby to Zeena Parkins. Now, they're joined by Castaneda, who plays both classical harp and the smaller, more portable Colombian folk model.

His music draws on the traditional Joropo music of the grasslands he absorbed early, as well as the tango, Brazilian and flamenco guitar, West African kora playing, and virtuoso jazz pianists like Art Tatum. That's a fascinating mix, but his technique is the real astonishment. Castaneda juggles lead, rhythm and bass lines, using a variety of hard and soft string attacks to keep those voices distinct - all without giving up the groove.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC BY EDMAR CASTANEDA)

WHITEHEAD: Edmar Castaneda on harp from his new album of solos and duos, "Double Portion." His previous CD was with his trio plus guests, but he doesn't really need much help, playing bass runs with one hand and chords and melody with the other.

On his new album, a duo with Brazilian mandolinist Hamilton de Holanda zeroes in on their stringed instruments' percussive side. Two duets with Puerto Rican alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon let Castaneda play the forceful accompanist. They hint at that swirly modal jazz John Coltrane and harpist Alice Coltrane loved, but this music's really about rhythm.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba takes a different tack on his two duets with Castaneda. Rubalcaba is a virtuoso too, but the harpist plays so much, there's no point in them both showing off. Sometimes he slides piano in behind the harp, mimicking its softly plucked chords, dramatic runs and violent strumming effects. Rubalcaba reminds us there's a harp hidden inside every piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: When Edmar Castaneda references traditional Colombian melodies, he changes up the timing, the harmonies and the feeling. He does the usual stuff jazz musicians do to borrowed material. His amazing technique on Double Portion raises the bar for every harpist, himself included. I suspect Castaneda is already looking for ways to top what he does here.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for emusic.com and the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed Edmar Castaneda's new album "Double Portion." You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org, and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.

I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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