Review: Edmar Castaneda's 'Double Portion' Of Harp There have been a few groundbreaking harpists in jazz and improvised music, from Dorothy Ashby to Zeena Parkins. Now, Fresh Air's jazz critic says the Colombian phenomenon joins that list with Double Portion, his new album of solos and duets.


Music Reviews

Edmar Castaneda's 'Double Portion' Of Harp

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The Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda was born in Bogota and began playing at age 13. A few years later, in the mid-'90s, he moved to New York. There he studied jazz trumpet before returning to the harp with a new perspective and set of skills. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Castaneda makes you rethink what the instrument can do.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Edmar Castaneda, playing solo harp. The bass part is him, too. There have been a few groundbreaking harpists in jazz and improvised music, from Dorothy Ashby to Zeena Parkins. Now, they're joined by Castaneda, who plays both classical harp and the smaller, more portable Colombian folk model.

His music draws on the traditional Joropo music of the grasslands he absorbed early, as well as the tango, Brazilian and flamenco guitar, West African kora playing, and virtuoso jazz pianists like Art Tatum. That's a fascinating mix, but his technique is the real astonishment. Castaneda juggles lead, rhythm and bass lines, using a variety of hard and soft string attacks to keep those voices distinct - all without giving up the groove.


WHITEHEAD: Edmar Castaneda on harp from his new album of solos and duos, "Double Portion." His previous CD was with his trio plus guests, but he doesn't really need much help, playing bass runs with one hand and chords and melody with the other.

On his new album, a duo with Brazilian mandolinist Hamilton de Holanda zeroes in on their stringed instruments' percussive side. Two duets with Puerto Rican alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon let Castaneda play the forceful accompanist. They hint at that swirly modal jazz John Coltrane and harpist Alice Coltrane loved, but this music's really about rhythm.


WHITEHEAD: Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba takes a different tack on his two duets with Castaneda. Rubalcaba is a virtuoso too, but the harpist plays so much, there's no point in them both showing off. Sometimes he slides piano in behind the harp, mimicking its softly plucked chords, dramatic runs and violent strumming effects. Rubalcaba reminds us there's a harp hidden inside every piano.


WHITEHEAD: When Edmar Castaneda references traditional Colombian melodies, he changes up the timing, the harmonies and the feeling. He does the usual stuff jazz musicians do to borrowed material. His amazing technique on Double Portion raises the bar for every harpist, himself included. I suspect Castaneda is already looking for ways to top what he does here.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for and the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed Edmar Castaneda's new album "Double Portion." You can download podcasts of our show on our website,, and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at

I'm Terry Gross.

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