Trail-blazing jazz harpist plans to swing into Annapolis for a concert Jan. 22

January 14, 1994|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Contributing Writer

Almost in self-defense, harpists are quick to tout the virtues of their celestial but ungainly instrument. It's not easily lost, for one thing. And it has so many uses. You can slice a hard-boiled egg on its strings. It's the only instrument on which you can hang your laundry!

But Deborah Henson-Conant, a glamorous harpist and composer in her 30s, has found even another use for her instrument: to play jazz. From bop to bossa nova to funky slap bass lines, Ms. Henson-Conant has been blazing a musical trail with this instrument of the angels.

Now considered the world's premiere jazz harpist, she will bring her unprecedented sound to Maryland Hall in Annapolis at 8 p.m. Jan. 22, joined by percussionist Joe Mekler and guitarist Grant Geissman.

At first blush, jazz on the harp might sound as incongruous as Mahler on the accordion and, in her youth, Ms. Henson-Conant would have agreed.

"I had every prejudice about the instrument when I first played it," she said in a telephone interview from her home in Cambridge, Mass. "I thought it was a sissy instrument, and I immediately ran back to the piano rather than play it."

But as a student at the College of Marin outside San Francisco, she embraced the instrument and began performing with symphony orchestras in the Bay area. Even in the classical repertoire, though, she couldn't help but experiment with chord voicings, once in the middle of Tchaikovsky's ballet music.

"One conductor even gave me a solo bow," Ms. Henson-Conant recalls. "I remember thinking to myself, 'Where is this going to end?' "

She soon quit orchestral work and began playing at elegant San Francisco hotels, then she switched coasts and began playing at New York's Waldorf Astoria. "On one level that was a pinnacle," she says, "but deep down I knew it wasn't."

It was in Boston that her fate was sealed. "I took my harp from the hotel dining room I was playing in into the jazz lounge and said to the bass player, 'Um -- mind if I sit in?' "

They didn't, and a new musical genre was born.

Soon Ms. Henson-Conant was playing in jazz groups, making appearances on the "Charlie Rose Show" on public television, and initiating a recording deal with GRP Records. After three releases with the jazz-oriented company, she is recording independently. Her newest offering, "Naked Voice," music for voice and harp, will come out in Germany in April and will reflect some new musical directions.

Since 1989, she has veered from jazz standards in favor of her own compositions. "Once I started composing, that's when I really discovered all the harp can really do," she says. "Percussion, bass lines, melody; it can do it all."

She is preparing for the premiere of her "Suite for Two Harps, Flute, Clarinet, String Quartet and Percussion."

"The image I have of my work," she says, "is of a cross-pollination of styles. Others have put these techniques into studies and exercises that harpists play. But I'm working them into this exciting new style."

The harp may indeed be the instrument of the angels. But who says angels can't swing?

For ticket information, call 263-5019.

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