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Edmar Castaneda: A World Of Music


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His music is about the world
—David Silliman
The harp may be the least common instrument in jazz/improvised music—even the humble kazoo gets more of a run out. Dating back over 5,000 years to ancient Mesopotamia, the harp in its various guises is common to nearly all cultures across the continents. Throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America the harp is an important element of folk music. The harp is common in Celtic music too, though in Europe it's perhaps more usually associated with the sedate airs of mediaeval court music or through-composed baroque classical music. This unique instrument has certainly done the rounds but nobody, it's safe to say, has ever played the harp quite like Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda.

"Hearing Edmar for the first time blew my mind!" exclaims vibraphonist Joe Locke, who has played and recorded with Castaneda. "He's a very unique artist." Drummer Ari Hoenig, who has also collaborated live and in the studio with Castaneda, concurs: "What struck me about Edmar is that he can cover all the roles of a harmonic and melodic instrument as well as playing the bass lines," says Hoenig. "He has a really unique sound. When I first heard him he really blew me away. He improvises, which is rare on his instrument. The overall sound that he gets out of his instrument is just beautiful."

Mind-blowing and unique Castaneda undoubtedly is, but not entirely without precedent. A small handful of harpists have preceded Castaneda in jazz's colorful, mongrel history In the 1930s Casper Reardon took what is probably the first recorded jazz harp solo on trombonist Jack Teagarden's "Junk Man." His swing paved the way for Adele Girard, whose improvisations on swing and Dixieland took the harp to new heights, though the instrument was still widely regarded as something of a novelty.

In the 1950s Betty Glamann and Dorothy Ashby expanded the boundaries of jazz harp. Glamann performed on Duke Ellington's 1956 album, A Drum is a Woman, and took the harp into the realm of the so-called Third Stream when she recorded with the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1960. Ashby collaborated with post-boppers like flutist Frank Wess, drummers Roy Haynes and Jimmy Cobb, bassist Richard Davis, and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard—firmly establishing the harp as a solo jazz instrument in its own right.

Towards the end of the 1960s Alice Coltrane placed the harp at the center of her Eastern-influenced, modal jazz explorations—though with greater emphasis on emotional weight than on any shows of virtuosity. In the intervening years the harp as a lead instrument has largely disappeared from jazz. To be sure, there have been harpists—Brandee Younger, Park Stiknee and Rossitza Milevska are notable modern practitioners—but most have had one foot firmly planted in the classical world whilst others have merely flirted with jazz alongside other genres of music.

"It's not like nobody's ever played jazz harp," acknowledges Hoenig, but I haven't heard anybody doing what Edmar's doing as good as that. He's the best that I've heard." Listening to Castaneda combine intricate, bop-inspired finger-picking and independent, grooving bass lines rooted in the Afro-Cuban tradition with dramatic, percussive chords, it's easy to see why so many people are dazzled—his sound is orchestral in scope.

Castaneda is frequently described as a Latin Jazz musician, though saxophonist Miguel Zenon, who plays on Castaneda's CD Double Portion (Self Produced, 2012) dismisses the label: "I think the term is very dated and it actually goes against the nature of what this music has been doing for more than 100 years, which is to grow and become more inclusive. Edmar's music has a lot of elements. He's a natural musician."

Zenon hits the marks when he describes Castaneda's music as inclusive. The harpist's debut recording Entre Cuerdas (Artist Share, 2006) fused folkloric elements typically associated with the arpa llanera from Venezuela and Colombia with jazz, but his palette revealed many more influences. African and Brazilian rhythms, tango and flamenco are as much part of Castaneda's idiom, as is the music of alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and pianist Chick Corea.

Castaneda arrived in New York as a teenager in 1994 and it wasn't long before he was absorbing the language of jazz—present and past—into his playing. His interests, however, were not restricted to any one type of music. Drummer/percussionist David Silliman was playing with flamenco guitarist Hernan Romero in New York's Zinc Bar back in 2003 when Castaneda walked in: "He really liked my playing," recalls Silliman of the young harpist. "We had a gig later that week and Hernan invited him to come down. I had never heard him but when he sat in it was like, wow man! Who is this?"

Listening to Castaneda play bulerias alongside Colombian Joropo rhythms it comes as no surprise to learn that flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia is an important influence. Like Zenon, Silliman rejects the limitations of Latin Jazz to describe Castaneda's music: "It's just a label. People think they have to put a name on it. His music is about the world."

Castaneda, Silliman and trombonist Marshall Gilkes formed a trio a little while later, though as Silliman recalls, the genesis of the trio that continues to this day a decade on was something of an accident: "One of our first gigs was as a quartet with a bassist. He wasn't a great reader and we didn't have a lot of rehearsal. At one point he got lost so Edmar just started playing the bass. It sounded great and that was the birth of the trio."

The chemistry in the trio is special, as Gilkes explains: "Our sound-checks are mostly just to check that we hear each other fine. We've played so much together that we know what direction the soloist wants to go or what direction we want to go as a group. It's pretty cool how little we have to think. We just have to listen to where musically things are going to go and that's a real luxury to have. The music feels really natural."

For Silliman, the trio's musical affinity stems from the strong personal bonds that unite them: "It's about the personalities. We get along and everybody supports everybody else," he explains. "There's a lot of communication on stage and we're trying to push each other to greater heights."

Castaneda is always open to new sounds and Silliman recalls the impression New Orleans made on the harpist: "Edmar had never heard second line music and he just fell in love. On the second CD there's a tune ["Columbian Dixie"] and the beginning is kind of based on a second line rhythm, where the tuba would play. So when we travel and experience new music we kind of bring that into the trio. The music is always evolving."

It says much for Castaneda's standing among his fellow musicians that his debut CD, Cuarto de Colores, featured established jazz clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera, in addition to Silliman and Gilkes. His second CD, 2010's Entre Cuerdas saw Castaneda's regular trio joined by jazz stalwarts such as vibraphonist Joe Locke, guitarist John Scofield, and percussionist Samuel Torres, whose CV includes stints with timbale legend Tito Puente, saxophonist Arturo Sandoval and bassist Richard Bona. The international press was universally glowing in response to Castaneda's first recorded outings, noting his virtuosity and musicality in equal measure.

Audiences too, have always reacted with a mixture of disbelief and the excitement of discovery: "Audiences are just blown away," explains Silliman. "When I first played with Edmar people asked if we were playing with a bass loop. When we played in Umbria at the winter festival the room was maybe half full but by the end of the concert the place was standing room only and all the press people were there. They'd never heard harp played that way. [pianist] Robert Glasper was at the back and he was kind of looking all over for the bassist," laughs Silliman.

The dense layers that Castaneda weaves are all the more remarkable given the limitations of his instrument: "It's a diatonic instrument so it's like playing the piano using only the white keys," explains Gilkes. "He can't modulate to other keys. On the Colombian harp you have to re-tune between each composition if you're switching keys but a couple of years ago a French company designed Edmar a harp that has levers on it so he can just flip a couple of levers and then he's in the new key. In the middle of a tune he can flip levers and add something outside the harmony that we're in. That's added something musically to the trio."

Castaneda's 2012 CD, Double Portion is effectively a solo outing, with duo collaborations on half the tracks with Zenon, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and bandolim player Hamilton de Holanda. The harpist thrives in duo settings but is equally at home playing solo, as Irish audiences were able to appreciate during Castaneda's six-date 2013 tour promoted by Music Network . It was a rare opportunity to experience the Colombian minus Silliman and Gilkes, and handling the rhythmic and melodic duties while improvising to boot.

At the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival Castaneda was joined on stage by bodhrán player Eddie Kavanagh, who Castaneda had seen performing in a traditional show a few days before. Without prior rehearsal the two musicians jammed together, seamlessly fusing Colombian and Irish rhythms before an appreciative audience. For Kavanagh, the experience of playing with Castaneda was something special: "I have never heard another player like Edmar in any genre. He has a percussive and rhythmic approach to his style that's truly unique. He`s an unbelievable talent and he pushes the boundaries of what is possible on a harp," says Kavanagh. "He's in a league all his own."

Throughout the Cork concert Castaneda alluded several times to the possibility of coming back to Ireland, "the land of the harp" to record his next album. It's a prospect that certainly appeals to Kavanagh: "The idea of Edmar collaborating with Irish musicians is a really exciting concept and I think the end result would be wonderful. He`s an amazing musician and an even nicer guy," asserts Kavanagh. "Its people like him that break down barriers in music and everyday life; an inspirational guy, to put it mildly."

Whether playing with flamenco, jazz, Latin-jazz or traditional Irish musicians, or absorbing the colors of New Orleans or Buenos Aires into his language, Castaneda is all about breaking down barriers. His music of the world also succeeds in shaking up people's perceptions about what is possible on a harp—and in Castaneda's hands that means pretty much anything.

Photo Credit: Jens Schlenker Fotografie

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