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Amanda Whiting: After Dark

The prospect of jazz harp generally leads to thoughts of either Dorothy Ashby’s soul jazz or Alice Coltrane’s impressionistic exploration. So it’s hard not to compare Amanda Whiting to her better-known precursors. But on her new album After Dark, the Welsh musician plucks her own voice out of the heavenly instrument, taking advantage of its otherworldly sound while at the same time keeping things solidly earthbound.

“Time Stands Still” opens the album with the kind of celestial sound one expects from the harp, with Chip Wickham’s dreamy flute melody gliding over ethereal strings. This suits Whiting’s metaphor for the album as about a love affair; the tone shifts quickly to “Messed Up,” whose tense, rhythmic drama suggests an angel forced to live among the imperfection of humans. Drummer John Reynolds drives the morphing tensions, with Whiting’s improvisation making use of the full range of her instrument, which at times feels like it organically, effortlessly transforms from guitar to piano and back.

“Who Knows” is full of even more drama. After an exquisite intro sequence that subtly shows off her classical chops, Whiting voices the title question in a straightforward figure that, like love, grows increasingly complex. This builds to a mesmerizing drone, craven again by Reynolds’s inventive fills and a steady pulse from bassist Aidan Thorne. The seven-minute “Stay for One” is in a similar vein, but Whiting shifts gears on the aptly named “Strut Your Stuff,” a funky 97-second vignette that may well be her nod to Ashby. The title track, in its first of two versions, is an introspective number that seems to come more from Whiting’s classical training, but that’s contrasted with a remix that ends the album; with a vocal by Nadya Albertsson, the album closer brings Whiting’s music to an R&B hybrid that breaks the spell just a little bit, but the multi-tracked voices also invoke a choir of angels.

Along the way, “Just Blue” is a clever blend of blues and classical, a bluesy progression augmented in parts by Whiting’s flourishes, at times playing like quickly voiced piano chords and others as if she’s strumming a zither. If the song’s title and the minor mood reflects a love gone wrong, the piece gives the artist a chance to use the whole range of her instrument in this jazz setting. On the other hand, “The Feist,” which starts with a sprawling Reynolds showcase, is one of several numbers where the trio, along with Thorne, are so in tune with each other that no one instrument seems to be playing lead. Here, Reynolds plays as much melody as Thorne, and Whiting plays as much rhythm as her drummer.

Whiting grew up listening to Debussy and hip-hop, and she spent much of her musical career in the classical world before pivoting to jazz. A variety of voices informed her own, and while some artists moving between genres might not find their voice in the new idiom, Whiting sounds perfectly at ease wherever the spirit takes her. Speaking of famous harp players, one might joke that Harpo Marx was an antecedent, but Whiting admits in a recent interview that the comedian was in fact an early inspiration: “I fell in love with a clown playing an angelic instrument,” she says, pointing out that, “It’s also our national instrument in Wales, so it’s all around us.” The harp isn’t just for angels and the Welsh. With a mysterious title and often melancholy tone, After Dark immerses us in a familiar sound deployed in an unfamiliar setting, and it sounds like home.

The Welsh musician plucks her own voice out of the heavenly instrument, taking advantage of its otherworldly sound while at the same time keeping things solidly earthbound.
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