There is little doubt that the harp-playing found on Carol Robbins’ Moraga is amazing. At first blush, it may seem that the harp isn’t associated with jazz that often. Yet with the likes of Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane making tremendous inroads with the lush instrument, it’s probably not surprising that Robbins world fits right at home with the material of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Cole Porter.
The Chicago-born, Los Angeles-raised harpist took piano lessons first and experimented with improvisation. But by the time she turned ten she had become entranced with the harp, even studying under the aforementioned Ashby. With a career that has seen her perform with artists like Brian Wilson, Dianne Reeves, Nina Simone, and even Frank Sinatra, Robbins’ pedigree is without question. She was nominated for a Grammy for her work on Billy Childs’ Lyric and has had her music featured on various soundtracks.
With Moraga, Robbins plays with a number of accomplished performers and illustrates that the harp is as poignant and hip as ever.
Featuring Childs (piano), Gary Meek (saxophone, clarinet), Larry Koonse (guitar), Darek Oles (bass), and Gary Novak (drums), there’s no shortage of sound on Moraga. At times, that’s a bit of a problem. Robbins sometimes fades into the background, placed tentatively under a mass of more traditional instruments, and the distinctiveness of what she brings to the table gets drowned out.
That’s not to say that this isn’t a special album, of course. With several Robbins compositions and some other pieces making up the program, Moraga is a substantial recording overall that showcases her inspiring talents on her instrument and as a songwriter.
The title track opens with a swanky landscape and blends Robbins, Childs and Meek well. The harp flourishes really set the song apart from the norm, but sometimes Meek’s instrument drives it to the rear. Still, the conversations are crafty and Robbins’ solo pushes her delicate playing at just the right moment.
Koonse features heavily on “Three Rings,” another Robbins original that finds its groundwork laid by understated brushwork from Novak. The trading strings are striking and the waltz takes flight with Meek’s solo. But Moraga is at its very best when it plays things simply. The final number, a Nino Rota medley arranged by Robbins, is the most awe-inspiring and vivid piece. “Rotadendron” is haunting, brimming with Childs’ light-fingered playing and Robbins’ attention to detail. The simple dance between the instruments is spellbinding.
There’s no doubting the spirit and passion behind this Moraga. It is a special recording, without question, but a grander focus on the harpist would’ve benefited the complete sound a great deal.