Music Reviews

Dorothy Ashby

With Strings attached 1957-1965

12 of the best tracks from 2023

New Land

Formats available: Vinyl, Download

With Strings attached 1957-1965 is effectively the greatest hits of Dorothy Ashby (1932-1986). The lesser-known harp jazzista of her era, in deference to Alice Coltrane, Ashby’s style and choice of material was always presented in a gentle, rhythmic, lyrical, and melodious fashion, happy and light. A native of Detroit, her father who was a self-taught guitar player brought jazz into her life from a very young age and in her 53 years she created a unique sound signature.

Ashby’s music has been impactful beyond the jazz world. Harpist Brandee Younger points out in her foreword to the box set that both “Stevie Wonder’s If It’s Magic and Swizz Beats’ If I Should Die Tonight, incorporate Ashby’s style of playing.” Furthermore, her influence and samples can be heard on works by Jurassic 5, Bonobo, Pete Rock, Rahzel and Drake among others.

The With Strings attached 1957-1965 musical retrospective is a monumental effort, it includes six albums that were recorded nearly 50 years ago and now digitally remastered and reproduced at high resolution, and where source material permitted, to a very great effect and quality. Dorothy Ashby’s style is gentle and percussive, there is an intoxicating lightness that emanates from her music, in places she plays the parts that a guitar, a piano or a vibraphone might have played. Her harp whether as a lead or as a rhythmic accompaniment to the solos of other musician integrates in a distinct fashion. Ashby’s interpretation of bebop, swing, blues and latin beats is devoid of the faster and harder machismo that was championed by many of jazz musicians during the years that the collection covers. Her fluency and dexterity creates a unique soundscape that has rarely been heard.

Dorothy Ashby has played with some of the most feted jazz musicians of her time, including Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman. In 1962, Ashby won Down Beat magazine’s critics’ and readers’ awards for best jazz performers. In addition, Ashby toured with a trio that included husband, John Ashby, on drums, and recorded albums for several record labels. When not touring Ashby dedicated time to her radio program, musical education and human rights causes which affected her career due to the prevailing race relations issues in the USA of those years.

The albums included in this collection are listed below

1957: The Jazz Harpist (Regent)

Dorothy Ashby – harp, Frank Wess – flute, Eddie Jones (tracks 3, 6 & 7), Wendell Marshall (tracks 1, 2, 4 & 5) – bass, Ed Thigpen – drums

1958: Hip Harp (Prestige)

Dorothy Ashby – harp, Frank Wess – flute, Herman Wright – bass, Art Taylor – drums

1958: In a Minor Groove (New Jazz)

 Dorothy Ashby- Harp, Frank Wess- Flute, Herman Wright- Bass, Roy Haynes- Drums

1961: Soft Winds (Jazzland)

Dorothy Ashby – harp, Terry Pollard – piano, vibraphone, Herman Wright – bass, Jimmy Cobb – drums

1962: Dorothy Ashby (Argo)

Dorothy Ashby – harp, Herman Wright – bass, John Tooley – drums

1965: The Fantastic Jazz Harp of Dorothy Ashby (Atlantic)

Dorothy Ashby – harp, Jimmy Cleveland, Quentin Jackson, Sonny Russo, Tony Studd – trombone (tracks 3, 5, 6, 8, 9 & 10), Richard Davis – bass, Grady Tate – drums, Willie Bobo – percussion (tracks 1 & 4-10)

Sharp eyed readers will notice Terry Pollard’s name in the credits of Soft Wind.  Much like Ashby, this talented musician struggled to gain recognition on account of being an blacj woman during the 1940s and 1950s, she is best known for her role in various Terry Gibbs bands.

For those who intend to purchase this magnificent collection by New Land records, while some tracks stand out in each of the albums, the similarities between the releases is very much in evidence and one can hardly choose the “wrong album”. This is a monumental tribute to a unique musician, and well worth discovering be it as a purchase of the full collection or any of the albums included in it. Ashby who has never received the accolades she deserved created unique jazz style that deserves to be heard far and wide.

Reuben Klein

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