Pacific Harp Project seeks to transform intro and allegro into jazz speak
Megan Bledsoe Ward

The best music, believe it or not, often needs to be listened to carefully. Here’s the Pacific Harp Project doing weightless but active jazz on its self-released, self-titled Dec. 4, 2015 album.

The Pacific Harp Project gathers together three exciting musicians around harpist Megan Bledsoe Ward’s elongated, thoughtful, and in-depth movements. Vibist Noel Okimoto, drummer Allan Ward, and bassist Jon Hawes dance upon her show, never distractive but complementary, and always informative, with an illusory effect in mind.

“Since I began playing the harp at age 10, I’ve wanted to play in a non-traditional setting,” Bledsoe Ward said in a press release. “My training is in classical harp, but my doctoral dissertation explored the harp in jazz and American pop music. It inspired me to combine my experience with my passion and create Pacific Harp Project. PHP would be nothing without the phenomenal musicians with whom I am lucky enough to play.”

The musicians of the Pacific Harp Project come from far and wide, with loads of experience to bear, starting with the leader.

Bledsoe Ward comes steeped in academia: a Bachelor of Music in Harp Performance, a Master of Music in Harp Performance and Literature, and a Master of Arts in Music Theory Pedagogy — all from the Eastman School of Music, as well as a Doctorate of Musical Arts in Harp Performance at the University of Washington. She wound up publishing that doctoral dissertation in 2012, the same dissertation that started this Pacific Harp Project and recording.

She also performs in Alaska and Honolulu. She’s the principal harpist with the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra, and an instructor at Pacific Rim University.

Musically, she’s such a standout: “Alaskan Young Artist” of 2007, “Performer’s Certificate” from Eastman School of Music, performing her solo harp composition, “Fantasy On A Red Wheelbarrow” at the 2010 USA-International Harp Competition, numerous other honors and scholarships. She’s on recordings by Melissa Fischer, Kurt Reimman, and the Canadian Brass and Eastman Wind Ensemble, along with two previous releases, Against The Current and City Nights, with her own classical-fusion band, NeoCollage.

Vibist Noel Okimoto is a well-known drummer in Hawaii who’s made memorable grooves on his own with various notable performances and recordings, such as the award-winning, 2014 album, ‘Ohana with pianist Makoto Ozone, jazz-fusion trumpeter Tiger Okoshi, and bassist Benny Rietveld of Santana, and the 2010 Rhythm Summit, featuring Taiko drummer Kenny Endo and bassist Dean Taba.

Drummer Allan Ward comes from Colorado University, Syracuse, and the Eastman School of Music, the same as Bledsoe Ward. He’s in the Royal Hawaiian Band along with Okimoto.

England-born, Massachusetts-raised bassist Jon Hawes plays both electric and upright on this record. Another Hawaii resident, Hawes has worked with the best in the islands, including Makana (“The Descendants”) and the Grammy-nominated The Wild Hawaiian with Henry Kapono.

One album, 12 songs, classical covers and a few hand-picked originals characterize this experiment of Bledsoe Ward’s. The project originated from her doctoral dissertation, “The Harp in Jazz and American Pop Music.”

In her project’s website bio, the harpist acknowledged the difficulty of generating jazz from such a classical instrument as the harp. She went back to the French impressionist and 20th century for a collection of music that she and her project’s band could improvise in a jazz setting.

“I’ve always loved jazz, and I’ve always wanted to play jazz on the harp. But the way the harp is constructed makes it difficult to apply a lot of jazz repertoire to the instrument,” she explained. “There are several jazz harpists who have found success, often by creating their own niche of jazz music which works well for harp. One genre of music that hasn’t been explored in an improvisational context is traditional harp repertoire. The harp music canon contains a plethora of French impressionist and 20th-century music, which exhibit very similar musical aspects to works that great jazz improvisers have performed.”

Megan Bledsoe Ward’s academic history plays a huge role in the music, which initially sounds so cerebral and out there. The average listener senses that there is a lot more at play than the lilting, pretty music box scores of a little girl daydreaming about dancing in a ballet.

Much of the liner notes contains references to fanciful classical composers, Maurice Ravel, Franz Liszt, Claude Debussy, and even more fanciful terms like “chromatic harp” and “cadences in A Major.”

Pacific Harp Project definitely begs for further attention. Each time the listener replays the album, a new discovery in made. What may have sounded like nice background music for a nameless ballet on “Un Sospiro” the first time, starts to take better shape in subsequent visits.

Bledsoe Ward tries to revisit Franz Liszt’s “Un Sospiro” (A Sigh) in her new transition, leaving room for the other musicians to find their places. Not surprisingly, while 10th on the recording after the original composition, “Serafina,” and Bledsoe/Ward’s first co-written piece, “First Take,” “Un Sospiro” became the impetus for this project. “This is the first piece I adapted for the band, and it was the inspiration for Pacific Harp Project. I was inspired by Liszt’s beautiful textures and harmonies and their inherent possibilities for improvisation on the harp,” Bledsoe Ward wrote in the liner notes.

Her harp technique and improvisation ignite a butterfly’s path from one peaceful moment to another. Halfway through her meditative throes, she almost goes into a Japanese garden during the age of the Samurai and geisha, plucking, strumming, and seemingly searching for an elusive melody buried inside so much historical context.

“Sonatine” is about contrasts, how hard or soft the musicians play two main themes that replay with subtle precision. The song is more about the power of restraint in playing the nuances of a repeat melody rather than the power of one melody with constant changes. It’s from French composer Ravel’s “Sonatine for piano” and Marcel Tournier’s “Sonatine pour harpe, Op. 30” adapation in 1924. “Adapting the first movement of this piece for Pacific Harp Project, I begin with Tournier’s opening presentation of the two main themes exactly as he wrote it. The rest of the band enters with an arrangement of the first melody and solos before transitioning into a statement of the slower, contrasting second theme.”

The opening number features Okimoto on vibes, extending and excavating a haunting melody that branches out in waves. His strokes resound with the deafening authority of a keyboardist and percussionist, bearing down on the notes chromatically, rather than gently tapping them on a barely-there monotone.

“Revenge of The Harpies,” another Ravel inspiration, allows for bassist Jon Hawes to lead in parts, too, which he does with masculine instinct. He really lifts the classical genre into the gloriously muddy arena of funk and jazz on “First Take” before Okimoto reaches enlightenment between the two on an even vibe.

The musicians on Megan Bledsoe Ward’s new album contributed also to some of the songs, Allan on a number of originals, Okimoto and Hawes on an arrangement.

Classical music fans will dig the subtle depth of the jazz improvisations, however slight at first glance. Non-classical fans may need to make a cup of tea, sit back in the middle of the woods somewhere, and chill out with Pacific Harp Project — on a steady loop.