The harp is one of the most challenging – even diabolically – instruments to play in music that requires rapid harmonic changes and a surfeit of improvisation, which is why there are few musicians [even very good ones] who have taken up the challenge in the Jazz idiom, for instance. The co-relation between pedaling and chord changes is so complicated that it requires extreme dexterity – and that’s only part of it. Consider how much a harp weighs and how cumbersome it is to move around. However, those who have – Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane [who is primarily a pianist], or more contemporary ones such as Jacqueline Kerrod, Brandee Younger and the man of the hour – Edmar Castañeda – belong to a very small tribe.
Each of those musicians has a singular, mutually-exclusive voice bent and shaped to speak – and sing – in a musical language that is quite its own. Unsurprisingly, Edmar Castañeda stands quite apart from any of the others, current or past, because he has been born and bred upon the culture of “the land of a thousand rhythms”, which refers, of course, to Colombia. Thus, when he unleashes his virtuosity onto music that is informed by both what is rhythmically germane to Colombia, but inflected by the idioms of Jazz listeners are in for a panchromatic treat. This is true no matter what he plays. Melodic, harmonic and rhythmic inventions tumble with shimmering radiance ignited by the combustion of his thumbs and fingers on the upright strings.
This album, Family, almost never happened and when it was finally completed nearly three years went by. It began in 2019, but then he had an accident at home and shattered the bones on his right wrist. Miraculously for him – and for the world of music – he healed and rehabilitated himself in fine form to complete what is an astounding repertoire of music full of rhapsodic daring, arising from songful melodies, breathtaking harmonic invention and, of course, magnificent polyrhythmic flair. The hyper-abundance of Mr Castañeda’s creativity evokes [and is sure to elicit] a fascination that will last long after the music of this album ends.
Not only does Mr Castañeda rise to meet every kind of virtuoso challenge presented by his instrument, but with electrifying, finger-breaking technique he negotiates the rapid skips and complex and rapidly shifting textural patterns of his music. Each of his songs is sonically beguiling and beckoning and is created from a palette of a myriad colours and textures – from deliciously astringent to the warm, robust left-hand intonations of his bass-string-playing. A truly magical example bursts forth on his song “For Jaco”, which features sculpted bass lines that inform the long inventions of the streaking melodic and harmonic shapes.
The Colombian fare is never very far off and always miraculously evocative. “Family” is one of those songs that is spacious, emotionally warm and carries enormous rhythmic weight. Mr Castañeda is joined by a stellar cast of musicians including drummer Rodrigo Villalón, who excels on the densely textured, ebullient traditional song “Agua Fresca”. Soprano saxophonist Shlomi Cohen wails mightily throughout the album. Meanwhile listeners will be able to savour the refined beauty of Mr Castañeda’s wife, Andrea Tierra, a vocalist who performs exquisitely on her fare. She breathes austere and desolate poetry into the traditional “Canción con Todos” and her performance is on the brilliantly compelling on “My Favorite Things” which comes alive in the pajarillo she wrote and sings, interspersed between the choruses of the iconic song that she sings in the style of an authentic llanera, typical of the Orinoquía region of Colombia. This makes for an absolutely monumental finale to this utterly memorable album.
2021 Latin Grammy Awards Nominee – Best Latin Jazz/Jazz Album
Track list – 1: Battle of Faith; 2: For Jaco; 3: Family; 4: Canción con Todos; 5: Agua Fresca; 6: Acts; 7: My Favorite Things
Personnel – Edmar Castañeda: Colombian harp. Featuring – Andrea Tierra: vocals; Shlomi Cohen: soprano saxophone; Rodrigo Villalón: drums
Released – 2021
Label – Independent
Runtime – 40:21
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