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In the middle of the pandemic year, jazz bassist Brandi Disterheft did what few others were able to accomplish when she released her lighthearted and uplifting fifth album, Surfboard. Featuring 14 arrangements of classics from both Brazilian and American songbooks, the album couldn’t have come at a better time, as its mix of summer vibes, swinging upbeat numbers, and soulful ballads served as a welcome relief to the gloomy outlook and shortage of new music. Joined by her accompanying sidemen in renowned Brazilian drummer Portinho and world-class pianist Klaus Mueller, Disterheft also enlisted the playing of legendary tenor saxophonist George Coleman (Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, B.B. King). The result is a masterfully technical, yet universally alluring breath of fresh air that spotlights Disterheft’s talents as a bassist, singer, bandleader, and arranger.  

The impetus behind Disterheft’s latest work was to capture the energy and connection of her decade-long playing relationship with Portinho, who helped her cut her teeth on the Manhattan scene when she transplanted from Canada in 2010. Their years of playing five-sets-a-night stints multiple days a week shows in their interlocking on Surfboard. But the spotlight falls on Disterheft’s beautifully polished vocals and her stellar bass playing, which reflects her lifetime of dedication to her craft and her years of studying with jazz greats, including the legendary Ron Carter. Her many solos on the album display her command of voicing, melody, harmony, rhythm, and her own unique voice through her playing. Her groove lays deep on tracks like “Surfboard,” “Coup de Foudre,” and “Nanã,” while her fleet-fingered swinging shines on “Del Sasser,” “The Pendulum,” and “Speak Low.” 

Born into a musical family in Vancouver, Disterheft’s mother was a B3 organist who shared the stage with the Supremes and Carlos Jobim in the 1960s, while her aunt was an L.A. session singer who recorded with Sergio Mendes and Clare Fisher. So naturally, at age five, Disterheft immersed herself in piano and singing lessons, where she immediately flourished. It wasn’t until she picked up the upright bass at 13 that she found her true calling in life and dedicated all of her time to blistering her fingers and studying jazz legends like Scott LaFaro, Ray Brown, and Jimmy Garrison. Her first solo album, Debut [2007], earned her a Juno award and sparked her decision to move to New York to be in the heart of the jazz scene. This led to collaborations with Anita O'Day, Benny Green, Cyrus Chestnut, Vincent Herring, Renee Rosnes, and her eventual studying under Carter. 

Now deeper into her career, Disterheft’s drive and dedication to her practice has intensified even more. When she’s not lighting up stages, filling concert halls, or performing in the studio, she’s most commonly writing charts, transcribing solos, and woodshedding etudes and passages that she practices on loop until every note is perfect. Her relentless woodshedding regimen and attention to detail is not lost on critics or fans following her rise as one of the next great stewards of jazz. With venues and tours reemerging at last, she’s excited to perform her new work for her enthusiastic audiences and to continue her rigorous gigging schedule while riding this wave to see just where it will take her.

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Surfboard has a very upbeat vibe and covers a lot of ground stylistically. How did you select these songs?

I was specifically trying to keep the mood cheerful and joyful given the past year we’ve had, so I discarded a lot of songs that I had originally considered for this album. The drummer, Portinho, is known as the definitive Brazilian drummer, and he’s in his 80s and is an encyclopedia of knowledge. Some of these tunes were from his book and were pieces that we play when I get called to perform with his trio.

How did you work out the arrangements?

We had already worked out a lot of them as a trio, because we’ve been playing together for seven or eight years now. Portinho loves highly arranged, what I call “slick vignettes,” which are new spins on things because you don’t want to hash out what’s been done before. And the piano player, Klaus Mueller, orchestrated with Herbie Hancock, and he’s so talented. It was definitely collaborative, which was nice because you don’t always work with players who are super interested in having a part in the arrangements.

You lock in so naturally with Portinho. What’s it like working with him as a rhythm section?

He has a specific Brazilian groove that he wants me to learn, and he took me under his wing to get it all down authentically. Over the years I’ve tried to do what he’s recommending, but then once I’ve learned all of his rules, he wants me to completely steer away from them. He hates the boring ’60s bossa nova sound, and he wants to go way out from that. He likes the modern feel of things, so he completely turns around the beat and everything is upbeat. It’s a very different kind of language from anything else. And he’s so cheerful onstage and he’s always cracking jokes. He’s nothing but grateful and happy and always keeps everything positive, and that comes out in his playing.

Disterheft composing with Coleman (photo by Marcela Joya)

Disterheft composing with Coleman (photo by Marcela Joya)

What was it like working with George Coleman?

It was the real highlight of the album for me. He’s worked with Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, and he has so much experience in his playing. He’s a remarkable musician who is 85 now, and he has a very specific sound — it’s hard to describe, but it’s so relaxed even when he plays a mile a minute. No matter what he plays, he has calmness, and it’s very special. It’s almost an elder statesman quality. It made me wonder if at that age I’d still be able to play with that much intensity. People typically hire younger musicians to bring that kind of fire, but all of these older players are just bringing it. 

How did you link up with George?

My last album was Blue Canvas [2016], and I had pianist Harold Mabern play on that; he is from Memphis, and he and George grew up together out there in an amazing music scene. George had heard about me from Harold, because I had been playing in his trio, and I called him up and asked him for a lesson because I wanted to learn more about double diminished [a scale consisting of two diminished 7 chords a half-step apart joined together: C-Eb-Gb-A-B-D-F-Ab]. I went to his house and we played, and he’s very warm and a wonderful man. I wrote these songs and asked him to record on them, and he agreed.  

Disterheft and Coleman (photo by Marcela Joya)

Disterheft and Coleman (photo by Marcela Joya)

How did playing with him enhance your own playing?

He’s always pushing the limit in everything he plays. When you go to hear him live, he has an old school mentality where he’ll call a song that no one on the bandstand has heard — we’re talking even the older well-known guys. Everyone is scrambling already, and then at the last minute he changes the key and everyone is panicking even more. He’s also well known for throwing in a bunch of harmony substitutions. Those are things you know about from Thelonious Monk with all of the superimposed changes you can play, but George has his own Memphis-style harmonies that you have to react to in the moment. He’s just a plethora of knowledge, and he uses every bit of it.

You take fantastic solos on “Portrait of Porto,” “Pendulum,” “On Broadway,” and “Del Sasser.” What is your mindset when it comes to soloing?

Lately I’ve been trying to breathe a lot more and trying to relax in those moments — especially when I’m in the studio, because I don’t have a big budget, so it’s go time. You have to instill so much confidence in your head and harness a relaxed feeling to slow everything down. That’s been my concept lately. Hopefully what comes out is a warm, laid back, strong performance. I was listening to Ron Carter records with Portinho last night until the wee hours of the morning, and Ron is so forward and pushing — especially when he’s walking. It’s almost like he’s rushing, but he’s not; he’s just pushing the music forward, especially when the music unfolds and breaks down and you want to play whole-notes and open it up, but Ron keeps it moving ahead. But that’s the opposite of what I’ve been working on in laying everything back a bit more.

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Speaking of Ron Carter, you’ve had the experience of studying under him. How impactful was that to your musical development?

I’m really grateful for it. I was already in my late 20s and I had already been playing professionally for ten years. It was really an attempt to refine my playing. A lot of people still go to him for “tune-ups,” just to check back and see if they’ve been slipping. He can be hard on you, too. He always used to tell me to stop playing so loud because he didn’t want his whole neighborhood to hear me. I’d play again, and he’d say the same thing. At that point I wouldn’t even be making any noise on the instrument, but it was then that I would hear the attack and my fingers on the strings and it would sing more, instead of choking the sound. Then he gives you etudes to play through, and he’ll lecture you if you make a mistake. He would say that he didn’t want it perfect one time, he wanted it perfect five times in a row. I was already a professional and I knew how to prepare for music, but it’s just a whole other level with him. He’s very much helped my playing in a lot of ways.

Those tough lessons must have helped your performing.

They really did, especially in playing hard bop with Vincent Herring [Night and Day, 2015] because they fly and play like 400 beats per minute, and you’re basically sprinting for 20 minutes and then it’s your turn to solo. I feel that being a girl, I try to play so strong and loud and I almost bash the bass to show them I’m a strong bass player. But at the end of the day it’s all about staying relaxed and breathing.

Is playing with a hard attack a big element of your playing technique?

I developed a strong left hand from studying classical bass. Ed Tait, the former principle bassist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, really honed in on my left hand having studied with him privately for a few years post graduation. He taught me sliding exercises pinpointing various fingering and large jumps to build muscle memory and strong intonation. Then when I moved to New York, I got another classical teacher who would make me cry all the time because he was so mean. He was so handsome and young, but so mean. One thing that helps to strengthen your hands is to put corks between your 2nd and 3rd fingers, which really makes your playing clean. Every note has to be clean, and if your left hand isn’t strong, you aren’t going to get a neat sound. One thing I learned from studying with Mr. Carter is that you can also put a cork in your right hand between your pinkie and your ring finger. I’ve been really working on my right hand to make it look and sound bigger. Ron’s whole thing is that your two fingers play as one finger, so you get double the sound using half as much energy, which is important when you’re playing super fast and you want to conserve your energy. That’s super hard, though, and it’s been taking me a lot of work. 

It sounds like you’re still taking a lot from your time with Ron. How has his own playing influenced you?

His walking approach is really interesting. When you study and transcribe other bass players, a lot of it is passed notes leading up and sidestepping, but Ron Carter’s approach is a lot more interval-based. You’re really hitting chord tones — 1-5-3-1 — and once you start walking that way, it becomes more linear and hurries it up instead of all of the in-between nonsense that we tend to throw into walking lines. I like to play around with that now when I’m walking.

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It has to feel good that Surfboard is your fifth album. How have you matured and developed as a bass player in that span?

As far as composing goes, I’ve become more focused. As a bass player, I’m really putting in the hours now. I’m very conscious to keep improving, and I want a faster rate of improvement. My playing is always a work in progress, and I’m always refining and working on it.

What specifically have you been working on lately?

I just transcribe a ton. I’ll transcribe a bar of Bird’s [Charlie Parker’s], and I’ll play that for a full year so those lines get in my hands. I could just learn it and move on, but I play it until I absorb every little nuance of every note. It takes so many hours, which is fun, but you really gotta stick to it. 

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You started singing young, but playing upright while singing is no joke. How natural is it for you to do both?

It just takes so much longer. You can learn a bass tune and go up onstage and play it right away, or maybe you can learn a song and sing it right away, but if you’ve spent a good two days or eight hours learning a song and you go on stage playing a bass and singing, you’re going to bomb. The bass line is not going to happen, and you’re going to forget a lyric. It just takes longer for it to become natural. You have to practice and practice and practice to get it to where it feels natural.

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You come from a very musical family. Did you always know you were going to be a professional musician your whole life?

I remember I was five and it was very strict that I had to play piano, and I remember playing for my schoolmates back then and seeing their eyes light up. I got the bug right then and there. I was composing a little bit then, too, and my mother was so sweet and told me she loved my songs, which gave me gratification for composing. And then when I got to high school, I wanted to be the best bass player out of all of the kids, and the same happened in college. You just get hooked. It's a competition with yourself. I have anxiety because all I want to do is create and share music.

What first got you to start playing bass?

I was 13 and I was just entering high school, and my father recommended it to me. I had stuck with piano and singing, so in my parents’ minds I was free to pick any instrument I wanted once I had the basics. The upright bass was like “wow” to me. It’s humongous and it has such a low, thunderous sound. I could read music really well by then, and reading bass lines was rudimentary to me, but before I knew it I was crying because my fingers were bleeding and blistering. Once you get past that, you’re hooked all over.

How does the bass, both sonically and in its role in music, resonate with your personality?

I hear that I’m a little aggressive and I’m very competitive, which I know from playing tennis, but there’s a vulnerability there, too, because the bass really sings and has a pretty melody to it. Maybe being a Gemini has something to do with it, too, in wanting to be very strong, but also wanting to be feminine at the same time. It’s both of those things. The role of the bass is phenomenal because you have the rhythm and the harmony and so much control. You can push the music in any direction you want.

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Who are your greatest bass influences?

The first bass player I ever heard was Scott LaFaro, because my mom was obsessed with Bill Evans. Then I discovered Ray Brown. I loved the thick, rich tones he had in using all of the open strings to utilize that fullness. I really love Jimmy Garrison when he’s walking, because it’s so full. And when he takes solos, it showed me that bass can be more poetic and avant-garde. Jimmy Blanton, harmony-wise — I think he’s the hippest. His playing is just so modern.

Why did you choose jazz as your platform of expression?

I’m really attached to that bebop language. It’s like speaking poetry or English at its highest level. It’s so clear and beautiful and joyous. That’s very difficult to accomplish. Even now, my language isn’t where I want it to be, but it’s all about that joyous feeling. When I put on a Charlie Parker record, it’s just the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Some of the modern music now is a little darker, and it doesn’t put me in as happy of a mood. It’s more melancholic, and it drones a lot more. You can’t copy that joyous feeling, either; you always have to create something new and try to express it through that. –BM

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Listen 

Brandi Disterheft Trio With George Coleman, Surfboard [2020]

Gear

Bass Pfretzschner Upright Bass

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