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Ashley Jackson's debut solo album traces a Black classical continuum

Harpist Ashley Jackson, whose album 'Ennanga' features music by William Grant Still, Alice Coltrane, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Brandee Younger.
Julia Comita
Harpist Ashley Jackson, whose album 'Ennanga' features music by William Grant Still, Alice Coltrane, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Brandee Younger.

For roughly a third of Ennanga, her debut album, Ashley Jackson performs her own arrangements for harp: an act of care and commitment, on a solitary scale. But Jackson is never really alone in this music. Her curatorial vision, interpretive choices and even her artistic identity all align culturally with the idea of a collective — and, more to the point, a continuum.

A good case in point is “I’m Troubled in Mind,” a spiritual that Samuel Coleridge-Taylor arranged for piano, and included in his 1905 collection 24 Negro Melodies. In her liner notes, Jackson observes that the song “reflects a highly personalized sense of grief and loss, taking us into the darker corners of the enslaved’s psyche.”

In this sense, her solo harp arrangement of the song — which begins and ends somberly, in guttural octaves, but peaks in a quickening, celestial ascent — puts itself in dialogue not only with Coleridge-Taylor but the plight of a people. Which might be too cumbersome a burden, if not for Jackson’s deft touch and thoughtful engagement. Ennanga is a gemlike offering precisely because she balances her instrument and its expressive potential against that moral calling, framing each gesture in personal terms.

Jackson, who earned advanced degrees at Yale and Juilliard, serves on the faculty in the music department at Hunter College, where she teaches harp as well as chamber music classes. Her doctoral work focused on Margaret Bonds — the subject of two fine recent albums by the Desoff Choirs, for which Jackson contributed liner notes.

The centerpiece and namesake of Ennanga is a chamber work by another 20th-century Black composer, William Grant Still. He composed the piece, named after an Ugandan harp, at the request of harpist Lois Adele Craft in the mid-1950s. Craft herself made one of the only previous recordings of the full work, which has a gospel undercurrent, a percolating rhythmic flow and an effective deployment of motifs. Jackson is a member of the Harlem Chamber Players, which beautifully inhabits the piece. For her part, Jackson handles Ennanga as if cradling a precious stone with velvet gloves, giving each melodic phrase and flourish room to breathe.

If she had only featured works by Still and Coleridge-Taylor on this album, Jackson’s mission and purview would be perfectly sound. But she meaningfully expands the frame to acknowledge the role of Black women in the harp’s cultural landscape. “Prema,” the album’s opener, is a meditation that Alice Coltrane first recorded on her 1978 album Transfiguration; Jackson and the Harlem Chamber Players imbue the piece with a clear-eyed presence.

And “Essence of Ruby” is a drifting theme by Brandee Younger — openly inspired by “Essence of Sapphire,” a track on The Fantastic Jazz Harp of Dorothy Ashby. In her solo arrangement, Jackson intensifies the dramatic qualities of the piece, moving in and out of tempo; her glowing tone invites a listener to consider what it means for her to invoke both a living peer and a historic precursor as a kind of sisterhood.

Here and throughout Ennanga, exceptional recording quality brings Jackson’s harp into pristine focus. (The album was produced and mastered by Silas Brown, who shares engineering credits with Misha Kachkachisvili and Maureen Sickler.) The playing itself is beyond assured, and yet Jackson communicates a kind of humility — there’s not a single arpeggio or glissando that lands as an ostentation.

This is perhaps clearest on the closer: another piece from Still’s 24 Negro Melodies. “The Angels Changed My Name” is a song of celebration and uplift — and, as Jackson notes, a nod to the pantheon of Black artists who paved the way. It is, she writes, “about taking those lessons learned and looking to the future with optimism and in faith.”

Ashley Jackson's Ennanga is available now on Bright Shiny Things.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.