There are some bulky musical instruments about, ones that you wouldn’t choose to lug up and down stairs, down corridors and onto stages. Not all instruments fit sweetly into a small case that can be stowed under chairs or on your lap on the bus. Among these monsters of bulk are the double bass and the harp, two instruments that require a level of commitment not just to musical theory but also to your back and to hear them together as two focal points on a jazz album is rare, but also, pretty special.
Of course, harp in jazz is nothing new, Alice Coltrane made a pretty good career from doing it, but perhaps due to the practicality of the instrument, it’s uncommon, which is a shame when you hear how nicely it sits in a band setting.
Tara Minton (harp) and Ed Babar (double bass) have wonderful chemistry that sees the music intertwine and support through a tag-team approach with one taking centre stage but then backing off to allow the other to shine. It’s an effective method and one that is able to cover the haunting, Little Mermaid-sounding ‘Life in a Bubble’ and ‘Whirlpool’ yet also handle modern-sounding ‘What We Have to Be’, ‘You Go To My Head’ and ‘Jazz Autographs’ (from the Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks film The Terminal). But the variety doesn’t end there because there are moments when the duo is joined by Stan Sulzmann and Lilia Iontcheva – on tenor sax and percussion respectively – and the ante is pushed up a notch allowing a band to tackle Latin rhythms.
This is where the harp and bass really come into their own.
There is no doubt that Minton is a master of the harp, the fact that she sings as well as she does seem a little unfair though, most of us must settle for being ok at one thing so being great at two just seems plain greedy! There is enough confidence in these skills that taking on such jazz classics as ‘On The Sunny Side of the Street’ and ‘Caravan’ seems normal. Both work very well and sit nicely in a collection that also boasts the Beatles song ‘Blackbird’ and Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight’.
Obviously, I can’t mention the harpist without mentioning the bassist and Babar has that Christian McBride tonal quality where he produces that (bassists call it ‘Mwah’ after the sound the note makes on a fretless neck) trebly tone in the mid and high range but also has that deep sound that allows the belly of the bass to rumble the speakers. These things don’t happen by accident and his role is made more difficult by listening and reacting to what is played. This isn’t to say he’s playing second fiddle or is overshadowed, the intricate playing on ‘Life in a Bubble (epilogue)’ runs the show and the control shown on ‘Caravan’ is exquisite, shifting between rhythms but also creating the atmosphere of the tune.
I spent the weekend with this album playing almost on repeat and it’s one I will return to again and again. If you like jazz but want something a little bit different from music centred around the brass players, seek this out, it’s comforting, inspiring and challenges what can be produced from two instruments.
Two For The Road is available from 28th January 2022