Interviews, Music, Music Interviews

Interview with bassist Brandi Disterheft: TO Jazz Festival 2009 coverage

Picture 28Last week, BlogUT caught up with Canadian bassist and composer, Brandi Disterheft, for a telephone interview, before her appearance at the Toronto Jazz Festival, as the opening act for the Dave Brubeck Quartet on Canada Day. Her debut album, “Debut”, won the 2008 Juno award for Traditional Jazz Album of the Year, and it’s an impressive debut, with all original compositions, for this very young, late-twenties, up-and-coming artist. Disterheft has studied under Oscar Peterson, who said of her “She has the same lope or rhythmical pulse as my late bass player Ray Brown. She is what we call serious”, and she is currently studying under the great bassist Ron Carter in New York City. Though she is known in the Toronto music scene – her first album was made with all Toronto musicians – she has decided to take on the big apple, where she now lives, and enjoys the new anonymity and late-night jam sessions at various clubs. She has been doing a lot of touring across Canada in the last week from Calgary to BC to Toronto, playing shows with her newly assembled sextet.

BlogUT: How did you decide to play the bass?
Brandi Disterheft: I grew up playing the piano and was playing the flute at one point. But then I wanted to play an instrument that was more versatile, an instrument I could play classical, jazz, and funky lines on. It was actually my dad’s idea to pick up the bass. But I have always been around music and instruments because my mom was a jazz player in Vancouver (where she grew up).

BlogUT: Did you start out playing classical music or jazz? How does that affect your playing?
Brandi: I did a combination of the two, actually. I started playing classical piano and then I got into jazz. I went to Humber College for the jazz program and took some private classical studies after. I’ve been studying under a classical teacher in New York City. Playing classical music is really important because it develops your technique and develops your sound. You get to really know your instrument and play with a bow. I don’t consider myself a classical musician, but I’m studying classical music mainly so that I can grow on the instrument.

BlogUT: What bass players have influenced you?
Brandi: Charlie Mingus is one of my favourites just because he’s such a great band leader and writer: the music was so joyous. Also, John Coltrane’s bassist, Jimmy Garrison, because his playing is so raw and he kind of revolutionized solos in a different way with all the double stops. And there’s a bass player in New York, Essiet Essiet, and he’s just a monster; it’s really inspiring to see him play. I’m also studying with Ron Carter in New York. We’re just working on sound and that is a real honour to be working with him.

BlogUT: What music are you listening to lately?
Brandi: I’m really interested in Brazilian music right now and you can see that influence in the new album. Because I’ve been writing lyrics lately and now I’m starting to sing at my shows, I’ve been checking out the usual great singers: Nancy Wilson, Etta James, and Joni Mitchell. But I always go back to the Brazilian because it’s so beautiful. Years ago, I was into 50s and 60s Bluenote Jackie McLean and Stan Getz. But lately I’ve been really focusing on lyrics, like American songbook lyrics. On the new album, which comes out in September, we play “This Time the Dream is on Me”, which I first heard Charlie Parker do and then I recently found lyrics for it.

BlogUT: What do you like about living in New York City?
Brandi: New York is very inspiring. It’s great to be around new people and the level of jazz is very, very high there. There are a couple of jam sessions that go from 1AM-5AM every night so you can always play and meet people. It’s nice to start over again, almost at the bottom of the barrel, where nobody knows you.

Your sophomore album, “Second Side”, is coming out in September. Can you tell us about that?
Brandi: It’s called “Second Side”, because it’s the second album, but it’s also a new side to the music. Some of the songs definitely have more of a pop influence, Brazilian pop, that is, so it sounds quite a bit different from the first album. I’m singing two songs on the album and we have Holly Cole and Rene Lee from Montreal as guests on the album. I had a great producer, Reese Olbert, who was a great help. I arranged for up to 5 horns on a couple of tracks, which was fun. And all the songs, except for one, are my originals again, just like the first album. I particularly like the album because it starts off with a really beautiful mood, a somber piece, “Sketches of Belief”, but it’s almost like a rejoiceful somber, so it puts me at such ease. It’s about the ups and downs of life, and how ultimately everything is going to be fine in the end. And then the second song on the album, “Combien de Chances”, goes into this kind of raging surf beat with guitars and I sing in French.

BlogUT: What is your process for composing?
Brandi: It depends on whether I’m setting deadlines for myself, like if I want to have x amount of new tunes by a certain day. But I could be in the middle of class or it could be in the middle of the night, and I just have an urge or a feeling or a mood that I want to convey on paper and it just has to come out of me and it just does. It’s amazing how sometimes you can just work at something and work at it and nothing comes out. And other times, the whole song comes out of you in two minutes, and then you can fine tune it afterwards. I usually compose on the piano, especially if I want to start off with a melody for two horns, then definitely on the piano. Lately though, I’ve been trying to do some composing on the bass.

BlogUT: You’ve also been doing all the arranging for your group. Can you talk about that?
Brandi: I went to school at Humber College and took an arranging class there. But at that point, I wasn’t really focused on doing arranging; I just wanted to focus on playing the bass, just practicing. Once I got out of school, I would sometimes just sit down at the piano and transcribe things from certain records that I really like. Then I’d get together with the band and see what sounds good. I really enjoy doing it. You know, you write something and as soon as you bring it to the band to play, they bring life to it, and it’s one of the most enjoyable things seeing your music really come alive. Sometimes it sounds even better than I could imagine because there’s real people playing. They make the music so amazing so it’s a real thrill.

BlogUT: There seem to be many great composers and arrangers that are bassists, like Mingus and Charlie Haden. Do you think there’s a reason why many bass players seem to excel at this?
Brandi: Well, I don’t think it’s just bass players. I think it’s just the need to write and to explore different sounds and to play music. But I guess, as a bass player, we always hear everything from the bottom up. So maybe that lends itself to having a more unique sound or a different sound, perhaps maybe even a more rhythmic sound, because we’re timekeepers just like drums.

BlogUT: What’s next for you?
Brandi: We’re just wrapping up our national tour now. In the middle of July, we’ll be heading out to the East Coast to finish up there. And we’re excited about the new record, “Second Side”, which is coming out in September, and being released on Just In Time records. We also just launched our new website and we’ve got lots of music samples up there.

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Alex is the Chief Film Critic and Editor-in-Chief of The Seventh Row, based in San Francisco and from Toronto, Canada. She has been writing film reviews for over a decade for various publications, including The Stanford Daily. She is also a Ph.D. Candidate in Industrial Engineering at Stanford University where she works on how to reduce system-wide food waste and its environmental impact. Alex is particularly passionate about stories about (and by) women, but gets equally excited about "Oslo, August 31st" as "Little Women" — both rank among her favourite films. She's also a keen supporter of Canadian cinema.