Dr Ashley Jackson’s profession involves helping out students at the music department of Hunter College, New York. But her passion lies within exploring African-American music. A talented harpist, Jackson strives to bring black culture to the masses through her performances and compositions.
Ashley Jackson’s debut solo album, Ennanga, is both a work of self-expression and an act of tribute to the great American musicians who inspired her. The name of the track is derived from a piece composed by William Grant Still, one of the first African-Americans to make a successful career out of orchestral music. ‘Ennanga’ is actually a type of Ugandan harp and hints at the instrument’s African roots.
The first track is a rendition of Alice Coltrane’s Prema, which means “divine love”. This was a free jazz track originally written for solo piano and strings. But Ashley Jackson does an incredible job of adapting it to the harp. Despite being unable to mimic the power of the piano, Jackson beautifully marries the resonance and character of her harp to the string section. The result is a soulful piece of music that truly does feel divine.
The second and seventh pieces from Ennanga are performances of classics by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, also known as “The African Mahler”. I’m Troubled In Mind and The Angels Changed My Name are from Taylor’s landmark exploration of African-American folk music, Twenty-Four Negro Melodies, Op. 59.
I’m Troubled In Mind is a particularly moving piece, as it is said to have originated from a slave weeping after a flogging. Ashley Jackson masterfully captures the solemnity of this tune. But more importantly, her light and energetic passages still retain that sense of hope and faith that is central to African-American spirituals.
The scope of Jackson’s musical capabilities is exemplified by the variety of styles that appear on Ennanga. Essence of Ruby is a composition by contemporary jazz and funk harpist Brandee Younger.
But of course, the highlight of Jackson’s album is the titular composition. Ennanga is presented in three movements. In the first, Jackson’s accompanists, The Harlem Chamber Players, steal the spotlight. The string sections, in particular, play powerful and aggressive sections throughout the piece. Ennanga I has a sense of wildness to it that may even be described as tribal.
The second movement is a far more soothing and beautiful section. Greater emphasis is placed on the harp, and Jackson serenades us with her soft glissandos. Ennanga II bears strong similarities with William Grant Still’s early masterpiece, the ‘Afro-American Symphony’.
The third and final movement is built upon a dance-like rhythm. The ragtime and blues influences are clearly audible in Ennanga III, yet Jackson’s harp playing does not feel out of place. She alternates deftly between the melody and accompaniment, expertly navigating the technically challenging finale to Still’s work.
In its totality, Ennanga is not just a harp album. It is a celebration of African American music. It is a chronicle of the evolution of black culture over the last century. And most importantly, it brings us a beautiful set of performances.