Edmar Castaneda: A World Of Music

Ian Patterson By

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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.


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