Interview: Harper Trio
Art is as abstract as we allow it to be. I think that lyrics in music attract our conscious mind and then with instrumental music maybe we can delve deeper into our unconscious.
Harper Trio is a new collaboration between Maria-Christina Harper, Josephine Davies and Evan Jenkins. All three are well established musicians, Maria-Christina studied classical piano and harp both in Athens and at the Royal Academy but became frustrated by the lack of opportunity that classical music afforded for musical expression. She went on study Music Therapy which encouraged improvisation and then found her way into jazz. Previously she has recorded and released an album, Gluten Free, as MC & The 7 Pedals and Draft with lute player Yiagos Hairetis.
Josephine Davies was named ‘Jazz Instrumentalist of the Year’ in 2019, she is involved with several projects, much of her music occupying a space at the intersection of music and spirituality. She has released several albums including an excellent couple with her band, Satori.
Looking on dicogs.com, Evan Jenkins must be the busiest drummer in Britain! He seems to have played drums on a huge number of jazz and blues albums and is currently playing with the Matt Schofield Trio and the Neil Cowley Trio.
Their forthcoming album, Passing By, is comprised of seven new compositions by Maria-Christina and with nothing but a cursory knowledge of jazz I have few reference points for reviewing it! I’ve been listening to a couple of albums by Satori, Josephine Davies’ band, and a couple of albums by Donny McCaslin. All of them excellent but this album is different, the combination of electric harp/harp/saxophones/drums gives it a sound of its own. At times it is quite meditative and reflective, even skirting poignant with ‘Standing Alone’, which invites you to take time out. At other times its really quite out there flirting with psychedelia and the avant-garde. Maria-Christina’s harp assumes various guises as she puts it through effects pedals and that means the album keeps coming up with surprises. If weird is the presence of the unexpected then it is a weird album! The first track I heard by the band was ‘In Cairo/Grandma’s Coat’ on The Freak Zone and it stood out as wonderfully innovative, fresh and odd even there!
Maria-Christina’s compositions synthesise Greek and Egyptian influences with avant-garde jazz, resulting in really interesting sounds and structures. The combination of three great musicians doing their thing makes for some great textures, and the interplay between the different instruments is always interesting.
The seven tracks on Passing By are: ‘East Hill Meditation’, ‘In Cairo/Grandma’s Coat’, ‘Safe Place’, ‘Castle Hill Road’, ‘Passing By’, ‘A Greek In Spain’, and ‘Standing Alone’. Together they cover quite a range of styles and moods! The relaxing opener, ‘East Hill Meditation’ sets the scene before the slightly sinister, psyched out intensity of ‘In Cairo/Grandma’s Coat’, which has a great electric harp/sax interplay and reminds me of ‘Blackstar’ by Bowie but being played by Henry Cow! The next track, ‘Safe Place’, calms it all down again, really very mellow and relaxed. Then we are into ‘Castle Hill Road’ which picks up the tempo, some superb sax all over the insistent electric harp and drums, mesmeric and wonderfully unsettling! There is a reoccurring motif through the album that I can’t quite identify (sound, riff, chord sequence?) and it is present again in the title track, ‘Passing By’, which gathers speed and intensity then slows again as it moves along, superb! ‘A Greek in Spain’ starts with a collection of interacting sounds that draw you in, percussion, sax and harp… gradually it takes a more melodic shape as the harp becomes the focus…then it takes an unexpected turn of road, and we’re off on an adventure! ‘Standing Alone’ is probably what you need after the previous track, quiet, thoughtful, reflective. Bit of a chillout zone with some really beautiful harp.
With almost no knowledge of jazz at all I have to say that Passing By is a great album, its intriguing, surprising, adventurous, energetic, thoughtful. After catching their debut single earlier this year I contacted Maria-Christina to see if she would consider an interview to discuss Harper Trio and the new album, she kindly agreed.
E&D: I was listening to Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone on Radio 6 towards the end of May when ‘In Cairo/Grandma’s Coat’ came on, completely otherworldly, intriguing! It sounded somewhere between Henry Cow and ‘Blackstar’ by David Bowie! Tell us more about Harper Trio! How did you get together?
M-C: Thank you! I’m very excited about this project and can’t wait to share all the music from this album which will be out end of October. We all met in Hastings through mutual friends. I wanted to record a few songs I had written for a different project and we got to know each other more and became good friends. Our mutual friends moved back to London so we decided to try out and play as a trio and see what happens. I still remember our excitement when we played for the first time, we all felt it really worked!
E&D: You are all very accomplished, established musicians, a jazz supergroup?!
M-C: That is very kind of you. We all had our own musical paths and it seems like a great time for all of us to get together. One of things I enjoy a lot in this trio is that each person comes with their personality and sound and at the same time we all match and complement each other.
E&D: Where would you place Harper Trio in the jazz continuum? How would you describe your sound? Avant garde psych jazz?
M-C: This is an interesting topic and a challenging one. I feel that we have elements of avant-garde psych jazz and spiritual free jazz with influences from traditional eastern music.
E&D: Who would be either side of your album in a (non alphabetic but) orderly CD rack?
M-C: Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra Arkestra, Mulatu Astatke, Mathew Halsall.
E&D: What artists, musicians and writers have influenced your (individual and collective) approach to music?
M-C: There are so many and so different. I’m a classically trained musician so I have studied and listened to most of the composers that have shaped what we call classical music. At the same time in my free time, I would listen to a lot of 60’s and 70’s rock bands. I can hear both these worlds in the music that I have written for this trio; I like the fluidity of classical music and the freedom that comes with improvisation from the 60’s and 70’s psychedelic rock music.
E&D: I didn’t realise on first listen to the single that you were playing a harp! How did you develop such an unusual sound?
M-C: Thank you for saying that! I always felt that the harp has been misunderstood and placed in a box that has defined it in a negative way. I am interested in exploring the sounds and the capabilities of the harp like guitarists did back in the day. Following their steps I have been experimenting and trying out different effects and ways of playing on the instrument that has allowed me to start developing a new stylistic approach.
E&D: I read that Josephine (Davies) draws on Japanese Buddhism in her music practice and have come across the phrase ’spiritual jazz’ a few times, could you unpack that description a little?
M-C: One more thing we have in common with Josephine is our interest in self-development, reflection and an admiration towards Japan’s culture. Spirituality. I think it comes down to becoming more aware of what is by searching and standing still. Finding ways to be grateful and respectful of all things around and try to let go of our ego and believe or feel that there is something more out there. For both of us spirituality has influenced ideas and thoughts we had that we then translated into a music composition. Sometimes this process is more conscious and sometimes not as much.
E&D: How does a HT track come together? What is the creative process or does it vary from song to song?
M-C: I write the music for Harper Trio. Some of the pieces I had already written before we became a trio and then everything else, I wrote having in mind this trio. So, the structure is always there but within that there is a lot of space for improvisation. One of the main things I wanted was to have a combined improvised space in the pieces instead of taking solos in turns. I feel that improvising together makes the music more powerful, creating space for anything to happen.
E&D: Would you see instrumental music as the equivalent of abstract art? The transposing of ideas and concepts, experience and emotions into another form?
M-C: Art is as abstract as we allow it to be. I think that lyrics in music attract our conscious mind and then with instrumental music maybe we can delve deeper into our unconscious. Not that one is better that the other, both can have a big influence on us but we have learned mainly to communicate through words so anything that doesn’t include words can feel abstract and in a way that is maybe what allows us to explore and think out of our usual way when we listen to instrumental music. Without the words there is less limitation in the musical journey as the journey feels more open and less directed.
E&D: Do you ever feel frustrated by that musical form? For instance, if there is a subject you want to address in an unambiguous way?
M-C: I have been mainly composing instrumental music. I like noise so when I find something frustrating, I play louder and create ‘cacophonous’ sounds or I play sounds that would feel more fragile. At the same time, I have written a few songs and lyrics and it does feel nice to add words sometimes. Again, it goes back to the interpretation of the artist and the listener; sometimes the emotion behind the music is so powerful that there is no space for words
E&D: I recently caught a band at Cafe Oto and asked about the balance between composition and improvisation (it was all improvisation). Where does the balance fall for HT? Or is structure v improvisation a false dichotomy?
M-C: My writing process starts with a lot of improvisation in the beginning and then gradually I introduce structure until I get where I want musically; then I pick up sounds or phrases from the improvisation to form a piece. I enjoy both structure and improvisation and I try to keep a balance between the two. All of the pieces I have written for Harper Trio have a structure, most of the times with a theme that we start and end with, and then a lot of space for group improvisation.
E&D: Does that balance change when you play live?
M-C: The balance stays generally the same but the energy really changes when we play live! We are very excited to share the stage and share our sound-thoughts with the audience.
E&D: There seems to be a lot of excitement around jazz at the moment, Ezra Collective winning the Mercury Prize and I noticed a recent Evening Standard article highlighting its popularity and pointing people to various venues in London. Is it enjoying a resurgence or is the media just paying it a bit more attention?
M-C: There is a lot of exciting music coming out, new collaborations, music genres coming together. Like with everything in life, when the media pay attention, more people pay attention too so that’s a good thing, an opportunity for great musicians to share their music ideas with a wider audience.
E&D: When is the HT album, Passing By, coming out and how can people get hold of a copy? Are there any opportunities to see you live coming up?
M-C: Passing By will be out on Friday 27 October and we will have our album launch gig at The Royal Albert Hall / Elgar Room on November 2. The album will be out in vinyl, cd and in all digital platforms as well. We have a few more gigs coming up in and out of London and we will have merch with us but people can also buy from my Bandcamp page HERE.
Big thanks to Maria-Christina for time and words! Harper Trio are playing the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall on November 2 and Bear Club, Luton on November 10. Catch them if you can!