Pacific Harp Project: Fresh Quintet

Feb 20, 2018

(l-r) The members of the Pacific Harp Ensemble: Bassist John Hawes, drummer Allan Ward, harpist Megan Bledsoe Ward, and Noel Okimoto, vibraphone. Saxophonist Todd Yukumoto is joining the group for their second recording.
Credit Pacific Harp Project

Hawaii is known for being a crossroads of influences, and there’s a new music group in town that is forging a hybrid of classical, jazz, and pop with unique instrumentation.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports the Pacific Harp Project’s sound is more than the sum of its highly talented parts. 

The Pacific Harp Project is currently recording new material and has a GoFundMe page in support of their second CD.  

 

Harpist Megan Bledsoe Ward:  I think in contemporary music, I see in the landscape of harp especially, there are still a lot of people playing traditional repertoire doing a great job but it's always an attempt to get more and more perfect play the right notes even righter—exact right time with more sound, and more color.  Or there's always people playing different kinds of jazz and pop music and writing their own music and I just happen to have been at a place and time where I could bridge those two things and kind of inadvertently create this new stream that we're riding right now.

Harpist Megan Bledsoe Ward has been praised by Downbeat Magazine for her “sharp musical intelligence.” Her doctoral dissertation was on “The Harp in Jazz and American Pop Music,” an apt prelude to the work of the Pacific Harp Project. Bledsoe Ward says it was Harpo Marx who clued her in to the harp’s sonic potential.
Credit Megan Bledsoe

Bledsoe Ward began by taking liberties with harp classics, Debussy’s Danse Sacree for example, bending and shaping classical structures with her husband, drummer, Allan Ward. Ward, a member of  the Royal Hawaiian Band, got another of his band mates interested in the experiment. 

"I love it! I love the sonic qualities of the ensemble." This is Hawaii’s eminent percussionist, vibraphonist, Noel Okimoto. His sure fluidity with jazz, (he has played with Freddie Hubbard, Stan Getz, Wynton Marsalis, many more) opened up the classical core of Bledsoe Ward’s project. 

Okimoto:  I mean it just sounds wonderful you know, it's not a sound that I'm accustomed to hearing. 

Ward: I'm generally trying to play a supportive role for everything that's happening but one of the fun things about this group is that when the instruments have potentially similar roles they can shift their roles.  So for example, Noel and Megan can both be soloists and they can both be accompanists, yeah, change!  One of the things that allows us to do that is that everybody's listening the whole time. I think one of the things that allows the instruments to step outside their often prescribed roles is that people listening and have a command of their instrument and that  increases freedom. 

John Hawes, bassist, brings a wealth of experience to the foundation of the group. 

Hawes:  Yeah, I’m knitting people together and kind of bridging different musical styles between classical and jazz and even some other styles, to be the glue that provides a bridge.  

It’s fun to note Hawes is also a member of reggae/world beat artist Mike Love’s band, Full Circle, featured a couple of weeks ago on HPR.  See him in that band here.

Hawes:  And it's been great having a saxophone since the last album!

Bledsoe Ward:  We were playing around with how many different combinations of sounds we could make and we realized that the only type of instrument that we don't have is something that has control over the sustain of their sound.  Something like a violin or wind instrument that can really shape their sound after the onset.

They brought in saxophonist Todd Yukumoto, a soloist with the Royal Hawaiian Band. 

Yukumoto:  Each one of them are really masters of their instrument, they set such a great foundation, I’m just kind of the frosting on the cake. 

Chemistry accounts for so much. Drummer Allan Ward (r) gets to know percussionist Noel Okimoto from their gig with the Royal Hawaiian Band. Okimoto is game for a project with Allan’s wife, harpist Megan Bledsoe Ward (l). Bassist John Hawes jumps in, they add a saxophone, Todd Yukumoto. Horizons open up!
Credit Noe Tanigawa

Ward:  Noel has been writing music for this group, it’s very exciting, but Noel also played a tremendous encouraging role in the inception of the group and especially Noel really encouraged  everybody to improvise in and be comfortable with that too.  So we really owe Noel a lot of thanks for everything he's done for us.  

Okimoto:  I remember, one of our first gigs, you told me, Megan is considering working out her solos before the gig. I said tell her, Please don’t do that!  It’ll be fine!

 

Bledsoe Ward: I still do that sometimes I just don’t tell them. 

 

The Pacific Harp Project is a combo that stretches harp repertoire for sure, and they're enthusiastic about their sophomore recording with Yukumoto. Their GoFundMe page.

 

Bledsoe Ward: The whole project would be nothing without these great musicians.

 

Okimoto's composition, "Loops," was nominated for Best Contemporary Instrumental Single by RoundGlass International Music Awards. Bledsoe Ward attended the awards ceremony in New York City.