Quick: Name a jazz harpist who isn’t Dorothy Ashby or Alice Coltrane. Difficult, isn’t it? Well, the Netherlands’ Anne Vanschothorst isn’t quite going full-on jazz on her new album Ek is Eik (buy it from Amazon), but there’s definitely a looseness and exploratory feel to her work that bounces it out of the strict classical realm and into someplace new and exciting.
The opening track, “Where’s Mo?”, is a duet with trumpeter Saskia Laroo, and it has a soft, Nordic beauty to it, recalling the work of Arve Henriksen. Laroo’s breathy, hissing emanations are matched by Vanschothorst’s delicate plucking of the harp’s mid-range strings, each player letting individual notes stretch into long frozen moments. This is followed by “Wandering,” a solo harp piece that’s not unlike Lavinia Meijer‘s 2012 recordings of Philip Glass (reviewed here); a quick, rippling melody is succeeded by a slower, more meditative passage, then the sequence repeats.
The title track is the first of three duets with viola da gamba player Ernst Stolz. His lines have a melancholy, romantic patience, with plenty of breathing space and a willingness to dive-bomb around the instrument’s range, emitting low, cello-like rumbles one moment, a burst of squeaky-door creaks the next, frequently returning to a droning sound reminiscent of a harmonium or a hurdy-gurdy. Behind him, Vanschothorst plucks the strings in a forceful, almost rock-like manner. On the second of their encounters, “Let Her Go,” the relationship is more equal; for much of its four-minute running time, the harp is the lead instrument, with the viola da gamba dancing slowly around it, but there are also some one-to-one exchanges, and Stolz even plucks his strings at one point, putting the two of them on parallel tracks. Their third collaboration, “Raven’s Departure,” finds Vanschothorst plucking out a melody so repetitive it’s almost a loop as Stolz solos like he’s soundtracking a black-and-white vampire movie.
Some tracks on Ek is Eik take the harp into truly unexpected territory. On “When We Were Trees,” Vanschothorst is joined by upright bassist Thijs de Melker and percussionist Arthur Bont; the latter man’s work is particularly evocative, blending forcefully brushed cymbals with slapped hand drums as the harp and bass meld into a single thrumming wave of notes. From a compositional and technical standpoint, though, the two most exciting pieces are probably “Here Once Stood Elms” and “I Know My Way,” on which multi-instrumentalist Bob van Luijt creates droning electronic orchestrations, paired with a jazz-fusiony electric bass sound, that fill out the sonic landscape behind Vanschothorst’s soft single notes in a way that, again, recalls the Nordic future jazz frequently heard from the ECM and Rune Grammofon labels.
The album includes several solo harp pieces (the aforementioned “Wandering,” “Strange Bird,” “The Caged Owl”), and it concludes with a second trumpet-harp duet with Saskia Laroo, “And the Willow Tree Smiled.” This one is more assertive than “Where’s Mo?”; although the same overall patient feel remains, there’s more impact to Vanschothorst’s striking of the strings, and Laroo’s notes are shorter and more biting, heading toward a sharpness reminiscent of Miles Davis‘s muted playing at times. It’s the perfect conclusion to a fascinating album—simultaneously multifaceted and thoroughly cohesive, Ek is Eik isn’t classical, jazz or anything else so simply categorized, but it’s beautifully written and performed, and well worth any open-eared listener’s attention.
Here’s a video for “Where’s Mo?”: