Edmar Castaneda/Grégoire Maret: Harp vs. Harp (ACT)

A review of the duo album from the Colombian harpist and Swiss harmonica player

Edmar Castaneda/Grégoire Maret, Harp vs. Harp
The cover of Harp vs. Harp by Edmar Castaneda and

The concept is simple and smart: Edmar Castaneda, master of the stringed llanera harp, and Grégoire Maret, equally adept on harmonica (a.k.a. mouth harp), meet up and make beautiful music together. It’s not a pairing that comes to mind readily; both instruments are rare enough in the jazz world to be perennially quarantined to that nebulous “Other” category in year-end best-of polls. When they show up in jazz at all, it’s usually to serve very different purposes, the harmonica to lend a bluesy touch and the harp, more often than not, taking its place within an orchestra to provide the occasional dab of extra lushness.

Both the Colombian Castaneda and the Swiss Maret have loftier goals than that. Each is ceaselessly adventurous, eager to find a new avenue of expression, stretching definitions and poking at boundaries. That they would think to come together like this isn’t all that surprising. Nor is it a great reveal that they stay far from stereotyped usage of their tools throughout this thoroughly enthralling duo set.

Maret and Castaneda get right to it here, opening the collaboration with a composition by the former, “Blueserinho,” that takes both instruments far from their comfort zones. As its title suggests, they start with a bed of blues but they don’t stay there long; just past the halfway mark, Castaneda’s South American roots begin to dominate the flavor of the melody, taking the track to a place that hadn’t even been suggested before. While the pair contribute a few self-penned tunes, some of the most hypnotic duets, placed at the end, are written by others: Charlie Haden’s “Our Spanish Love Song” is feather-light and dreamy, while right before it, the two harpists are joined by banjo maestro Béla Fleck on an interpretation of Jacob do Bandolim’s “Santa Morena,” which flits from dark/foreboding to breezy/welcoming without breaking a sweat.

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Jeff Tamarkin

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Jeff Tamarkin is the former editor of Goldmine, CMJ, Relix, and Global Rhythm. As a writer he has contributed to the New York Daily News, JazzTimes, Boston Phoenix, Harp, Mojo, Newsday, Billboard, and many other publications. He is the author of the book Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane and has contributed to The Guinness Companion to Popular Music, All Music Guide, and several other encyclopedias. He has also served as a consultant to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, NARAS, National Geographic Online, and Music Club Records.