Jazzing it up

Swiss-based harpist Park Stickney is heading up the jazz side of the inaugural Israeli Harp Festival & Competition.

Jazz harpist 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of Dalia Meroz PR)
Jazz harpist 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of Dalia Meroz PR)
Considering that Israel was the first country in the world to hold an international classical harp competition – back in 1959 – it has taken quite a while for a festival based around the instrument to emerge.
The inaugural Israeli Harp Festival & Competition will take place at the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Music Center in Jaffa from October 16 to 19, and the organizers have done a commendable job in covering as many stylistic and genre bases as possible. There will be classical concerts, including one with the support of the Beersheba Symphonette, Celtic harp music, African music, klezmer and jazz. The agenda also features workshops, master classes, coffee concerts and even therapy sessions.
As the name of the event suggests, there will also be a competitive part to the four-day proceedings in Jaffa, divided into two age categories. The junior section, for 12- to 18-year-olds on Celtic harp and pedal harp, will take place on October 16 with each contestant playing 10 to 15 minutes of works of his or her own choice. The 18- to 25-year-old division of the competition will take place the next day, with the entrants playing 20 to 25 minutes of individually selected material on the pedal harp.
THE PRINCIPAL proponent of the jazz side of the proceedings is the one foreign import on the festival roster, USborn, Swiss-based harpist Park Stickney.
Stickney is one of the most versatile masters of the harp on the international scene. He has a solid classical education, having completed several degrees at the prestigious primarily classically based Juilliard School in New York.
Growing up, Stickney fed off a highly varied musical diet, although his current favored musical channel did not feature too strongly back then.
“I listened to classical, rock, folk music, not really jazz,” says the harpist, adding that from an early age he sought out non-conventional musical avenues.
“I was a deeply committed listener to the Dr. Demento radio program, where I listened to all sorts of strange stuff, including Spike Jones, Frank Zappa, Weird Al Yankovik. We also used to go to a pizza restaurant every week, called Organ Stop Pizza, with live music on a restored Wurlitzer pipe organ, which was definitely a big influence on my early listening.”
Stickney takes that disparate baggage with him around the globe, having performed and given workshops all over the US, Europe, Asia and the Caribbean. He also finds himself teaming up with all manner of other instrumentalists and ensembles, and plays everything from jazz to classical to rock music.
More than anything, however, Stickney has always followed his own muse to wherever it leads him. The jazzy element – conscious or subconscious – was there from the word go.
“What’s sure is that I was, from the beginning, a seemingly irresponsible harp student – making up my own pieces, not following the instructions, fooling around,” Stickney notes.
“Now, looking back, I have the feeling that I was actually very responsible on my path to being a jazz harpist, but just didn’t realize it.”
He set out on his artistic path very early.
“I started the harp at age seven. The jazz from my ‘irresponsible’ beginnings continued step by step. I attended the first International Jazz and Pop Harp Festival at the age of 10, where I learned about pedal slides, which are vitally important in playing heavily chromatic improvisations.”
Subsequent university-of-the-streets experience pointed Stickney even more firmly in the way of music’s left field. “While playing in hotels when I was in college, I realized that it was more fun to improvise than to follow the sheet music. And then when I moved to New York and started playing all over the place, my interest in jazz and improvisation really took off.”
That go-with-the-flow ethos takes Stickney into plenty of artistic nooks and crannies, and he constantly searches for willing collaborators of varying musical ilk and instruments.
For Stickney it often comes down to personality vibes, although instrumental attributes also come into the synergetic equation.
“Really it’s more of a question of chemistry with the people,” he says.
“Of course, if I play with other instruments that have the same basic harmonic/ melodic role as the harp [piano, guitar, vibraphone, accordion, etc.], it becomes more difficult as we have to share the same space. But in a positive listening situation, this isn’t a problem.
Normally I play solo, or in duo with an electro-Celtic harpist, or in trio with upright bass and percussion.”
Stickney is currently exploring the sonic possibilities of the latter lineup with an act with a definitively funky title.
“As far as my performing life goes, right now I’m very excited about my harp-upright bass-percussion trio ‘The Lion, the Wolf, and the Donkey,’ with Gigi Biolcati on percussion and Dino Contenti on bass. We have a CD that’s nearly finished, plus we are thinking about releasing a live recording from a concert we gave a few weeks ago. We also just finished some concert videos from a project in Paris last year.”
And there are other things going in Stickney’s constant musical juggling act. He plays duo with electro-Celtic harpist Rüdiger Oppermann and plays with the neatly named Leo Trio, which he calls “a bluegrass-leaning classical trio,” in addition to his ongoing solo work. He also proffers his jazz wares at the Royal Academy of Music in London, the Conservatoire National Supérieur Musique et Danse in Lyon, and at the Haute École de Musique in Lausanne. He recently forayed to Germany where he performed Mahler’s Das Klagende Lied with the Berlin Philharmonic. Stickney follows a constantly meandering multicolored path which he will, no doubt, be delighted to share with his counterparts at the festival in Jaffa.
THE FESTIVAL program includes all sorts of workshops, starting with Yael Marzel’s Alexander Technique for Musicians slot, which will advise harpists about the best posture and movement, breathing, relaxation and muscle work to adopt while playing.
Later Nadav Koniachni will provide harp maintenance tips, and harpist Jill Rogoff and vocalist Ranana Ne’eman will talk about and demonstrate harp-vocals synergies and self-accompaniment on the harp. Stickney will also add his weight to the instructional side of the program, with a workshop entitled Basic Introduction to Jazz Harp, and Jacob’s Ladder regular harpist Sunita Staneslow will team up with Rogoff, Tomer Bachar and Adira Ben-Aharon to enlighten the festival goers about the therapeutic properties of the harp.
Stickney also stars in the concert section of the program alongside the African music Kabako Acoustic Show, a Paraguayan music concert with harpist David Carlsberg and guitarist Itcha Prilolatenski and the Mediterranean Project with Celtic harp player Iris Eyal, guitarist and oud player Guy Kark, violinist Nir Seroussi and percussionist Erez Monk.
For more information about the Israeli Harp Festival & Competition and for tickets: www.harp.co.il. For more information about Park Stickney: www.jazzharp.com