Plucked strings eternal

Local harpist Cindy Horstman--classically trained but possessing a yen for taking her instrument into the realm of jazz and blues--has just released a new album, Tutone, that's primarily duets with her longtime bassist and producer, Mike Medina.

"We play together so much, we thought we'd just release an album that reflected that," Horstman says. The new album is a logical extension of the styles she's been developing since her first recording, the cassette-only Cindy Horstman. That release featured the gentle, falling-water tones of the harp picking along jazzy arrangements of covers and originals that varied from playful to serenely introspective.

Supported by Medina's warm, liquid bass, Horstman's playing reveals a certain acceptance of the harp's native voice. She's come to terms with the fact that no other instrument (save the banjo) has as unique--or as hard to disguise--a sound as the harp. Once enamored of electronic gizmos and boxes and their potential to liberate her from her instrument's signature sound, Horstman has learned to work with it. "My focus really isn't so much on different sounds anymore," she explains, "but on songwriting and bringing the sound of the harp into the piece, and incorporating it into improvisation. I love making different sounds, but you've got to recognize that at some point, it stops being a harp and might as well be an electric guitar."

Tutone--recorded in Medina's home studio--is about half original and half cover material. The familiar chestnut "Norwegian Wood," Carlos Santana's "Europa" (featuring a tasty Medina bass solo), and Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" all come up for graceful remakes, but the real emphasis for Horstman was on the original material--her vehicle for pulling the distinctive sound of the harp "into" a song. On "Tutone" you'll find "James," a gentle, Jobim-inflected number; the idyllic "Waltz"; and the self-explanatory "Lullaby," as well as two versions of "Tailwind"--a duet treatment and, at the end of the album, a full-band approach.

"Well, we also play around as a band--maybe not as often, but we do--so we wanted to put that on there," Horstman says. She hasn't limited her growth to her songwriting, however; her ability to get her records to her audience has also greatly improved. Tutone is set up for "alternative" national distribution (everything but record stores, in this case--not Horstman in flannel with a nose ring), with Crystal Clear handling local duties. The appearance of Tutone is also much more sophisticated, with slicker graphics and photography by local music specialist James Bland. Featuring Horstman on the inside sleeve with her hair slicked back and in stark profile against her instrument (she looks kind of like Gary Numan vogueing), the presentation on her new album is light years ahead of her earlier efforts, which she handled herself.

"It just got to the point where I wasn't educated enough in the marketing aspects of it to make the most out of it," she admits. "After all, the artwork is the first thing a consumer looks at."

Ironically, now that Horstman has begun to master all of these technical points, she's relieved of the responsibility: She's just been signed to the small, Rhode Island-based Northstar Records. "Last year I went to the NAIRD [National Association of Independent Records Distributors] convention in New Orleans and ran into [label president] Richard Waterman. It was great," Horstman recalls of their meeting. "He didn't want to change a thing." She's already working on an entirely new project. The upcoming album will pull together many of her old accomplices--guitar god Andy Timmons, jazz pedal steel guitarist Larry White, Medina, Frank Haynes on keyboards, and new drummer Dan Wojciechowski, fresh out of the studio with LeAnn Rimes--for a full-band effort that will be her Northstar debut.

"When it rains, it pours," Horstman says. "I'm just very, very happy with the way everything's turning out."

Cindy Horstman celebrates the release of Tutone with two performances: Thursday, August 21, with Mike Medina at the Dallas Museum of Art at 8 p.m.; and Friday, August 22, at the Bathhouse Cultural Center on White Rock Lake, with Medina and Andy Timmons likewise at 8 p.m.; both shows are free.

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