Cue up “Soul Vibrations,” the first track on Verve’s reissue of Dorothy Ashby’s Afro Harping, and revel: a one-note syncopated bass line over a slamming drumbeat that you’re sure you’ve heard sampled somewhere. Enter the double-tracked theremins, followed by swoopy strings. Next, over the relentless beat, an echo-plexed harp solo by Ashby, during which the strings return with 16-notes; then the theremins run the groove into a fade-out. And there you have it: 3’15’’ of pure aural time capsule in all its mod glory.
Afro Harping was arranged by producer Richard Evans (see also Groovin’ With The Soulful Strings ) and recorded by Ashby with unknown musicians for Cadet Records in 1968. As an example of Ashby’s talents as the undisputed master of the jazz harp (the stringed instrument, by the way, not the harmonica), it is not ideal; her earlier straight-jazz records make a better case for her instrument in improvised music. But as a groove-heavy slice of late-'60s lounge, it’s unbeatable. Actually, there are two styles on the album: a heavy funk, psychedelic groove showcased on the two side-openers, “Soul Vibrations” and “Afro-Harping”; and a genial, insinuating pop-jazz feel with more extensive displays of harp prowess. Both are lightweight and certain to garner the derision of jazz purists, but those with open ears will enjoy the record as a cheesy but delightfully fun artifact of a less self-conscious time.
Ashby contributes several beguiling themes, most of which (despite the title) are set to a lilting, bossa nova feel reminiscent of Burt Bacharach (whose “Look of Love” is featured), accompanied by strings, vibes, and flute. Ashby’s catchy lines on “Action Line” are reminiscent of a marimba, while at other times her harp plays a more guitar-like (“Afro-Harping”) or pianistic (Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower”) role.
It’s a fascinating glimpse into the use of this instrument in jazz that makes one curious to hear Ashby on her earlier, more bop-influenced dates, few of which are available on CD. Sometimes, as on “Lonely Girl” and “Theme From Valley of the Dolls,” the pop syrup is laid pretty thick. But in all, it’s good to have this album, which is apparently one of the most sought-after vinyl records among the beat-sampling crowd, available on CD. Those interested in 60s mod will enjoy it for its own sake, while others will be provided with an interest-piquing introduction to a largely forgotten instrument, and musician, in jazz.
Personnel: Dorothy Ashby, harp; Richard Evans, arranger/producer; other musicians unknown.