Every generation or so, some enterprising soul comes along determined to haul the concert harp out of the orchestra pit. Today, there's Joanna Newsom, the anti-folk singer and songwriter who just released the characteristically harp-intensive Ys. Before her, there was the mellow Debra Hanson-Conant, and before her, the New Age freak Andreas Vollenweider. Go back another few generations, and you run into the late Dorothy Ashby, the Detroit-born harp master who stands as one of the most unjustly under-loved jazz greats of the 1950s.
Ashby swings, plain and simple. When she plays some mid-tempo scooting-along tune, like her own "Rascallity" (audio) all the stock riffage and jazz bravado common on so many records of this era disappears. Leading her chamber group, Ashby operates in an unassuming way, leaping through intricate arpeggios that no other jazz instrumentalist could attempt. Her single lines may not be terribly fancy, but she selects her notes carefully, and plays each one with a classical guitarist's stinging articulation. Ashby accompanies flautist Frank Wess on "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To" (audio), sometimes snapping off chords as if the harp were just a bigger guitar, and at other times using its immense range to conjure an enveloping wash of sound in the background.
Given all the peak jazz experiences recorded around 1957 and '58 (Sonny Rollins' Live at the Village Vanguard, Miles Davis' Milestones, and so on), it's easy to understand why Ashby's In A Minor Groove didn't attract a massive audience. She and her groups of the day, here including Roy Haynes on drums, play pleasant, utterly typical and hardly earth-shattering chamber jazz. Still, it's a notably smart and polished version of typical, and anyone who can make a massive instrument like the concert harp dance — and use it to swing in such a cool, low-key way — deserves to be more than a footnote.