Jazzing up the harp

Jazz harpist Deborah Henson-Conant is not your typical angel-with-harp. Before this musical dynamo even plucks the first string, it’s her physical appearance that gets you — dressed, as she usually is, like a showgirl in tight leather and sequins, her head crowned with voluminous dreadlocks.

And — as if foreshadowed by her image — when Henson-Conant actually begins to play her instrument, audiences are routinely caught way off-guard.

“Just another harpist the way Dennis Rodman is just another guy who dyes his hair!” one reviewer noted. Henson-Conant turns the serenely Olympian harp into a jazz instrument with unprecedented eloquence, expressiveness and animation. She plays fast licks on her 47-string instrument, strums it like a guitar, and stands up and taps the strings with her leg for a “funk-bass” feel. She incorporates flamenco techniques and scat sings. And she mixes her own original compositions in with jazz standards like “Take Five” and Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology.” Through it all, Henson-Conant sets up the songs with anecdotes that run the gamut from whimsical to highfalutin’.

All this subversion comes quite naturally to a woman who, as a child, hated music lessons, refused to practice the classics and never formally studied music until she went to college. Her innate gift was nurtured simply by growing up in a family that was itself a veritable living musical theater.

“Music was my first language,” Henson-Conant recalls. “That’s how my parents communicated with me.” If you can imagine a musical (say, Oklahoma!) in which characters suddenly break into song to communicate an idea or feeling, you have a good idea of what life was like growing up in the Henson-Conant family. The harpist explains that, though her parents were not formally trained, they were serious music lovers. The pair’s entire courtship, in fact, consisted of the two lovers singing their affections to one another, according to Henson-Conant. “Music was not separate from my life,” she says simply.

At the age of 3, Henson-Conant was already improvising. Recognizing that their daughter had an aptitude for tunefulness, her parents tried to inspire some serious study by paying for music lessons, to no avail. When she was 12, her parents borrowed a harp, thinking this might encourage formalized training. Instead, she took one look at the thing and proclaimed it “a sissy instrument.” She went back to playing the piano and spending hours writing and improvising jazzy theatrical pieces.

By the time Henson-Conant was 18, she realized the main limitation her lack of formal musical training presented: She was unable to write music others could read. Four years later, she graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in music; a finished, full-length musical-theater composition — and a newfound love of the harp.

To make a living, she played in restaurants all over the Bay Area, then in New York City and, finally, in Boston. As she recalls, “One day, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I dragged my harp out of the candlelit dining room and into the jazz lounge and said to the bass player, ‘Um, mind if I sit in?'” That was the turning point in Henson-Conant’s career.

She formed a group with a bass player and a drummer, called The Jazz Harp Trio. They performed regularly, and Henson-Conant began to receive Boston Music Award nominations for Outstanding Instrumentalist and Outstanding Jazz Act. In 1990, she won the Outstanding Instrumentalist award.

As a composer and performer, Henson-Conant collaborates on widely varied projects. In 1994, she presented a choreographed version of her original suite, “Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown,” in Boston and premiered her “Jazz Suite” with members of the Scottish National Chamber Orchestra. In 1995, she was featured guest artist and composer with the Boston Pops and Pittsburgh Pops.

When asked what music or musicians have influenced her style, Henson-Conant replies, “Everything from Burl Ives to Verdi. Sometimes I feel like I’m from another planet. As a teenager, it was like I was living in a parallel universe.” While her peers were grooving to rock ‘n’ roll, she was continually exposed to an eclectic variety of songs, thanks to her parents’ often-unconventional musical tastes.

This uncensored musical upbringing is the strongest influence on her own performance style.

“Playing music in such different, eclectic styles doesn’t seem unrealistic to me,” she admits. In concert, Henson-Conant might play a Celtic arrangement, a flamenco piece and a blues number back-to-back.

Now widely considered the world’s premier jazz harpist, Henson-Conant has a dozen CDs under her belt and tours extensively in Europe and the United States. Her latest solo work, The Celtic Album, features a haunting blend of Celtic sounds with solid blues and unrestrained improvisation.

Bandleader Doc Severinsen calls Henson-Conant “a wild woman.” And audiences who attend her show can expect no less than a wild musical adventure.

The scoop

Back by popular demand, Deborah Henson-Conant kicks off the 1999 Brevard Music Festival with an opening gala on Saturday, June 19 at 7:30 p.m., in the Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium. Tickets are $18 and $22; proceeds will benefit Brevard Music Center educational programs.

The Brevard Music Festival runs through Aug. 8 at the Brevard Music Center, one of the nation’s oldest and finest summer-music institutions. This season’s festival will feature a wide variety of performances, running the gamut from symphonies to Broadway fare to pops concerts to operas. Free lectures by composers, student recitals and other special events will be presented throughout the festival. Ticket prices for concerts and special performances range from $7 to $25. Season, kids’, group and student-rate tickets are also available. For a complete schedule and ticket info, call (828) 884-2019 or (888) 384-8682, or visit the festival Web site at: www.brevardmusic.org.

Festival highlights include:

• June 25: Broadway spectacular featuring beloved tunes from the ’40s and ’50s, with the Brevard Music Center Festival Orchestra

•July 10: Gilbert and Sullivan’s mirthful operetta, The Mikado

• July 11: Violinist Ruggiero Ricci performs with the Brevard Music Center Festival Orchestra

• July 17: Soprano Angela Brown performs the concert version of Verdi’s A Masked Ball

• July 20: Highly acclaimed composer/entertainer Marvin Hamlisch, the winner of three Oscars, four Grammies, two Emmies, a Tony and three Golden Globe awards

• July 31: Some Enchanted Evening, a Rodgers and Hammerstein revue

• Aug. 1: The Diaz Trio, one of the few professional string trios in existence, performs with the Brevard Music Center Festival Orchestra

• Aug. 7: Puccini’s famous La Boheme

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