Australian harpist Tara Minton’s new album, “Two for the Road” (Jazzizit) is the most jazz-inspired of the three she has made. Her companion for this road is bassist Ed Babar, and the album has a guest appearances by Stan Sulzmann and Lilia Iontcheva. The repertoire includes American songbook standards plus tunes by pianist John Taylor and by Dave Holland – the first ever recording of Norma Winstone’s words to Dave Holland’s “Dream of the Elders”. Interview by Sebastian Scotney
LondonJazz News: We think of the harp as providing textures, and the surprise here is finding you playing strong bebop lines and really making them work on the harp? How has that happened?
Tara Minton: I am very firmly ‘team Ashby’ and wanted to follow in her footsteps playing bebop lines on the harp. In 2018/19 I did an intense one year masters at The Guildhall, which really challenged me to find ways of expressing proper jazz language on the harp. I felt like I was marinating in language and harmony. Then when lockdown hit, I started transcribing intensely – everyone from Charlie Parker to Lee Konitz, Herbie Hancock to Monk. I eventually took an online course in transcribing for harpists and had students all over the world learning bebop solos each week. It kept me on my toes and in time, it started to flow out of my fingers and onto the harp in my improvisations.
LJN: The spread chords on Monk’s ‘Round Midnight somehow sound as if they might have been written for harp! How did you get to that?
TM: I love that you’ve picked up on this! As much as I have worked to honour the jazz tradition, I still play the harp. It is a beautiful instrument with a unique sound that deserves to be celebrated. I spent a great deal of time experimenting with my sound and finding ways to express the music that I love honestly. I found that guitar voicings particularly work well on harp, which are particularly prevalent in my arrangement of ‘Round Midnight.
LJN: I gather that guitarist Tommy Emmerton has helped you in the study of guitar voicings…
TM: Tommy is a legend! I had the great privilege of taking private lessons with him at The Guildhall.
A common misconception is that the harp is like a piano and therefore “should” be able to play everything a piano can. That’s completely untrue of course and deeply unhelpful. But Tommy approached our lessons with genuine curiosity and understanding of where I was and how far we could push the harmonic potential of the harp. I learned a lot from him and his approach to the unknown.
LJN: …and that you’ve also been swapping notes with the Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda?
TM: Ah yes! I met Edmar at the 10th anniversary of ‘Festival Internacional d’Arpa de Sentmenat’ where Ed and I were invited to perform. Edmar attended our concert and afterwards invited me to join him in a beautiful session of sharing ideas, approaches and techniques for playing jazz on the harp. I recall he was particularly taken with my language on Caravan (Monk inspired) and he showed me how to play tremolos using the Latin American harp technique. It was an honour for me.
LJN: (unrelated to the album but linked to the jazz direction) there is a main stage Ronnie Scott’s debut happening too?
TM: Yes it is! James Pearson has invited me to play with The Ronnie Scott’s Quintet on Thursday 10 and Friday 11 February. He has arranged the music of Burt Bacharach for jazz quintet, harp and string quartet. I believe (unless David Snell beat me to it!) it will be the first time a harp has played the main show at Ronnie’s. I am particularly excited about the fact that I am a ‘side woman’ rather than the centrepiece of the ensemble. It shows that the harp is coming to be recognised as a legitimate jazz ensemble instrument.
LJN: (back to the album…) I gather you and Ed Babar were out walking one day and happened to run into Stan Sulzmann and he landed on the album….
TM: Yes this happened! It was very funny. We’d been hiking through the mud for hours by the time we chanced upon Stan. Covered in muck, we had a delightful chat on the lane near his house. A few days later I contacted him to invite him to play on the record. His reaction was so enthusiastic and positive! I was concerned that the chasm of experience between us might be obvious when we hit the studio, but Stan is such a generous musician, I didn’t need to worry. He was completely authentic and brilliant as ever, yet managed to bring me with him. I played better than I ever have in my life in that session and I credit Stan for that.
LJN: What’s behind the story of Dave Holland’s Dream of the Elders and Norma Winstone’s words?
TM: I was first introduced to Dream of the Elders and Norma’s words in a rhythm class at The Guildhall and loved them. The chart was a photocopy of the original hand-written by Dave and Norma. As I was also planning to record John Taylor’s Whirlpool, Stan connected me with Norma just to have a chat with her about her approach to performing this music and her lyrics. We had a lovely zoom call for about an hour where I discovered that she’d never actually recorded the lyrics she’d written – they were penned for a live performance. I’m honoured that Norma granted me permission to record her lyrics, presented on the album under the new title What We Have To Be.
LJN: What has been Geoff Gascoyne’s involvement in the new album?
TM: Geoff came on board as musical director and producer of the album. We’d met years before at The Spice of Life at one of Trudy Kerr’s gigs, then reconnected last January when I was hired to play harp for Chris Strandring’s album “Wonderful World”, which Geoff wrote the string arrangements for. I cannot sing Geoff’s praises enough. He has been a musical hero of mine for a long time and working with him was a dream. He was deeply generous with his time and expertise and was such a positive force from rehearsals all the way through to mastering. Truly a wonderful, wonderful human being.
LJN: How was three days on a boat making the recording?
TM: Well, getting the harp onboard was nothing short of an ordeal, but once we were it, it was a dream session! David Holmes is the engineer on board Lightship 95 Studio and a kiwi, so I felt right at home straight away. His ears and instincts are impeccable. He captured the sound of my harp as I hear it. No one has achieved that before. He really was a joy to work with. The day Stan and Lilia Iontcheva came to record was hilarious – Stan turned up first and boshed out his tunes in no time at all. We were gathered around listening to him and Geoff tell jazz tales when Lilia arrived in a fluster. She gets dreadfully sea sick and didn’t realise we were recording on a boat! We gave her some sea sickness tablets and put her in the booth – so long as she was playing she was fine, but those few hours were intense!
LJN: This album is in a very different place emotionally from “Please Do Not Disturb the Mermaid”. A tune like The Shadow Of Your Smile has amazing calm and contentment (in a good way). What’s the story there?
TM: I’m glad that comes across in the record. This was a lockdown project at a time when I was forced to accept stillness. I was (am) suffering from intense homesickness and the emotional upheaval that all musicians suffered in the last two years. We all had to learn acceptance and patience. I couldn’t draw from my well of creativity – it had been exhausted by my last record, so instead, whilst I waited for my well to re-store and indeed, my world to be restored, I focused on the quotidien, the mundane. I realise now it was a practice of musical mindfulness. The arranging, the transcribing, the practice and the focus on the familiar – I think it gave me stability when I needed it most.
LJN: You’ve also taken on the podcast interviewing/ presenting / editing role and you’ve been doing it for a year… . Do you enjoy all three? Has interviewing artists changed your own practice?
TM: Yes! Robe Cope invited me to join The Jazz Podcast around this time last year. I love it! I was fairly intimidated at the start as Rob is such a brilliant interviewer and I was already a devout listener of the show, but he helped me to believe in myself and I’ve come to really love my new role. Editing is always tedious (mostly cringing at myself) but the hosting and particularly the interviewing is a joy. I’ve interviewed some incredible artists – Malik Al Nasir was a revelation. Ayanna Witter Johnson, Émile Parisien, Tim Kliphius, Phil Minton (though I forgot to press “record” on that one!)… every interview leaves me feeling inspired with new music and ideas to explore. I’m certainly motivated to pursue this accidental career in journalism alongside my music career with fervour and see where it takes me!