Ukrainian harpist Alina Bzhezhinska will perform at Happening with her band HipHarp Collective and saxophonist Tony Kofi.
Hi there! I’m doing well, currently enjoying the sunny vibes of a cafe in Ibiza while catching up on work. This past summer was quite busy with music, including performances at jazz festivals in Cologne, Smida, and Paris. Now, I’m taking a week away from the hustle and bustle of London, enjoying some quality time with my harp, practising, and working on my upcoming projects. I’m also reflecting on the recently recorded duo album with Tony Kofi on saxophone.
The harp is really rare instrument in the jazz context, historically known only maybe by the recordings Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane, the two names that often seem to be the go-to when referencing jazz harp. What are the main obstacles of being a contemporary jazz harpist, or are there any – especially since the audience doesn’t have so many reference points?
You’re absolutely right about Alice and Dorothy being jazz harp legends. They’ve been role models for generations, including contemporary jazz harpists like me. Their legacy paved the way for the harp in jazz. Times are changing, and there’s more acceptance for women in jazz, especially those who play less conventional instruments like the harp. With talent, determination, and vision you can create something truly special. However, it wasn’t as easy a decade or so ago. When I first started in jazz, I had to break a few barriers, gain the trust of promoters and fellow musicians, and work tirelessly to prove myself on the jazz stage.
How much do the construction of the harp, the sound of the harp, and the traditions of the harp dictate what you can play with it? Or are the limitations only mental, only in one’s head?
The construction of the harp does present some challenges. It’s tuned diatonically with 7 pedals to change pitch, allowing us to use most keys. However, the pedal system can limit speed since each semitone requires pedal adjustment. Jazz harpists have developed clever techniques to overcome these limitations.
But in jazz, there should be no mental limitations. To play jazz on the harp, you must be ready to embrace the unknown, unafraid of failure, and always willing to try again.
Your album Reflections is packed both with originals and reworkings of tunes by harp royalty. When composing your own music, apart from other musicians, what inspires you? And: is music to you ”only music”, or should it also reflect its surroundings: the context where it was created or for example take a stand?
When composing my music, I draw inspiration from various sources. It could be a person, a mood, a story I’ve heard, or even simply observing a falling leaf. I’ve learned from the best but strive to create my unique style on the harp. Writing music is deeply personal to me; it’s an artistic expression of my experiences and emotions.
What’s going to happen?
Looking ahead, there’s much uncertainty in the world, including the ongoing war in my birth country Ukraine and the challenges posed by climate change. As an artist, I hope to use my platform to speak out and help search for truth, which is at the heart of jazz. On a personal and professional level, I have plans to release my new duo album, Altera Vita, (BBE Music) with Tony Kofi on saxophone, embark on international tours with my band, get back to regular exercises like swimming or badminton, read more fiction, and, most importantly, greet each morning with a smile and gratitude despite life’s inevitable ups and downs.
Alina Bzhezhinska HipHarp Collective feat. Tony Kofi
Friday 3 November 2023 at 20.00