A good beat and a bad rap. Heavenly harp gets down to jazz business

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

SAY the word ``harpist'' to most people, and they think of a colossal stringed beauty cradled by an angelic woman in an evening gown. But when harpist Deborah Henson-Conant thinks of a harp - she thinks jazz. She digs ``Take Five,'' ``I Got Rhythm,'' and ``Swingin' Shepherd Blues.'' She sports black harem pants and bare shoulders above a metallic-gold top. And she takes to the stage with a spunkiness that says ``Let's jam!'' to her bass and drum player.

Wait a minute. Jazz - on a harp?

That's what a competition judge said to her once: ``Dear, you really shouldn't try to play those tunes.''

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But Ms. Henson-Conant contends that the harp is an ``uncharted'' instrument with ``such variation of colors.'' She tells of the time John McLaughlin, a noted jazz guitarist, walked over to her harp as it was lying on its side. ``He began playing it like a guitar - and it was amazing. What he did was inspiring to me,'' she said in a recent interview.

Classical harpists are rare enough (about 2,800 in the United States), but of the few jazz harpists around, Henson-Conant is the only one who plays regularly in a jazz trio.

In an intimate nightclub or theater, the sheer physical stature and beauty of her 65-pound instrument transfixes the eye. With its painted smokestack column, gracefully curving brass neck, and red and green strings, it looks more like a museum piece - some ancient Greek treasure - than anything of practical value.

Henson-Conant admits the harp has a ``bad rap'' for being - well, gaudy. All the other orchestral instruments are so ``businesslike,'' she said, ``and look at the harp - it's gold, it's painted. No wonder people think it's kind of dumb.''

So she was surprised at the positive response to her musical act. ``People have been very intrigued to hear what the harp can do.''

Indeed, Henson-Conant has been called ``a local musical treasure'' by the press here. The city's top jazz clubs and radio stations have welcomed her as one of their own for years. Today she embarks upon her first international tour, to Edinburgh and to Landshut, West Germany, where she'll be performing and giving workshops to classical and folk harpists.

Henson-Conant used to play harp with the San Jos'e and Oakland Symphonies back in her native state of California.

``I would never be an orchestral harpist now - it's terrifying,'' she says, referring to the times she's had to count 450 measures to herself, hoping to come in on time. ``My greatest claim to fame as an orchestral harpist is that I can count!''

So jazz is now her beat, a logical choice, since she's loved to improvise all her life - even in classical pieces (``to make the mistakes make sense'').

``One reason that a lot of harpists don't go into jazz is, there's so much modulation - moving from one key to another key.'' To get the ``blue'' notes of jazz, Henson-Conant uses the harp's foot pedals to ``bend'' the pitches - a taboo in classical harp playing. ``I put more wear and tear on the [pedal mechanism] in a week than most harpists would in two months.''

In concert, Henson-Conant looks like an athlete at times, striking sharp, crisp chords with the left hand and picking frenetic scales with the right. Shoulder muscles strain and flex, and the percussive tones complement the drummer's rim-taps on the snare. Other times, such as during her original ``Wizard of Oz'' medley, the lift and sweep of her arms could be a ballet move from ``Swan Lake.''

Pop singer Livingston Taylor described Henson-Conant's skills as ``mind-boggling'' at her recent concert in Somerville, Mass. ``She has a fire within her playing,'' he said in an interview between sets. ``Here's a woman who's as powerful a jazz player as anyone who's out there.''

Henson-Conant said she never intended to be a performer - or to play the harp. She spent time in college writing for musical theater, composing, and singing. As a child, she learned how to tune a harp. ``Then the college said, `Look, we need a harpist. We'll give you lessons.' And they sent me to this woman who just wouldn't let me stop - she hooked into me.''

Before she knew it, she was called upon to substitute for her teacher in an orchestra (``terribly frightening'') and learn the repertoire. She took a concerto audition once - just for the experience - ``and no other harpists showed up!'' she says. ``At a certain point, I felt I got my entire career by default; nobody else could tune the harp, so I got the lessons. Nobody else came to the auditions, so I won it.''

In college, Henson-Conant had only recently learned how to read music. She sometimes found herself in orchestra rehearsal gazing at the page and thinking, ``OK, it's a dot ... it's on the third line ... and it's got a hole in the middle of it ... now what do I do?'''

Fortunately, her mother, who was an opera singer, had taught her all about chords when Deborah was little. So in orchestra, she analyzed the chords and improvised on them. After one concert of ad-libbing, ``the conductor, instead of chastising me, actually made me take a bow afterwards. And I was shocked, and I thought, `This is a little scary.''' But it was this skill that helped her jump from classical to jazz, she said.

When playing classical music in restaurants, she'd sneak into the lounge on her break and listen to the jazz musicians. ``I started bringing my harp in and asked the bass player if he'd play with me.'' Now, she's jamming with top bass players all the time - and getting more confident in her playing.

Her recordings include independently produced and distributed tapes - the most recent of which, ``'Round the Corner,'' mixes jazz standards with her own compositions. A Boston Globe critic described the title song (written by Henson-Conant) as ``an ideal tableau for the harp's swing capabilities in her gifted hands.''

``I really thought I would encounter a lot of resistance from being a woman and from playing this strange instrument,'' said Henson-Conant. But everyone - from the audiences to the players - has been ``so supportive.''

But she has had to ``break down'' her own uneasiness about her role in a jazz combo. Usually playing with men, some of whom are older and far more experienced, she has often felt awkward ``being the leader.''

``For so long I was constantly looking for approval from my players and that was completely inappropriate. My job is to listen to them and let them know what I want. It's still hard, but it's getting easier.''

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