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Brandi Disterheft: "you can only be who you are, on stage"

Brandi Disterheft.   photo by Sam Mirlesse

Brandi Disterheft and her quartet perform on Saturday, April 28 at 7:30 p.m. on the NAC Fourth Stage.

Canadian jazz bassist Brandi Disterheft impressed Oscar Peterson so much when he heard her play that he said, "She has the same lope or rhythmical pulse as my late bass player Ray Brown. She is what we call serious."

But Ottawa audiences haven't had much chance to hear Disterheft. She appeared at the 2009 Ottawa Jazz Festival, and briefly in a CAPACOA showcase in 2010. This Saturday, she's finally back again, with her quartet at the NAC Fourth Stage as part of the NAC Presents series promoting Canadian musicians.

Disterheft wears many musical hats: composer, bandleader, bassist, and vocalist. The winner of a Juno (2008 Best Jazz Album of the Year) for her very first album, she will be releasing her third album this fall, and has kept up a busy schedule of playing with her own and other groups, and continuing to learn from the masters.

OttawaJazzScene.ca editor Alayne McGregor talked with her earlier this week about her Saturday concert, her career, her upcoming album, her studies with Ron Carter,  the expatriate Canadian scene in New York, and how Disterheft works to connect with audiences at her concerts.


Brandi Disterheft grew up with music, both at home and at school in North Vancouver. Her mother was originally from Chicago; she plays B3 organ and jazz piano and has a sextet and a trio out in Vancouver. "There was always music being played, and I was always attending jazz concerts as a youngster."

She started out on piano, and switching to the bass "was actually my dad's idea. He thought it would be comical if he saw this little girl playing the big instrument. I just took a love to it because of its deep bottom-end sound, and because it's so versatile. You can play groovy beats on it."

Because of her musical studies, she was able to attend Handsworth Secondary School, whose band teacher, Mr. Reb (Bob Rebagliati), was famous for teaching and encouraging many west-coast musicians, including jazz pianist Renee Rosnes. She and her friend, vocalist/pianist Laila Biali, both studied under Mr. Reb, and then together moved into the jazz program at Humber College in Toronto.

One of her major influences while at school was Toronto jazz multi-instrumentalist Don Thompson, "a beautiful composer and arranger": she played in his ensemble and also had private lessons with him. One of the most important lessons she got from him was "to have me start memorizing the songs, and playing them by heart. In school you're just reading these charts."

From there, she started playing in the Toronto jazz scene, where she worked with pianist Richard Whiteman, recording about five albums under his name, as well as playing with many other Toronto jazz stalwarts – and even subbing in as bassist for the Shuffle Demons for one tour. "Toronto is a great city. You can play every night as a bass player. [...] I really started playing the standards all the time and memorizing the standards."

But standards didn't characterize her albums: Debut (2008) and Second Side (2009). Second Side ended with a standard, but that was the only one on either album. Disterheft wrote the remainder: some instrumentals and some vocal numbers, featuring both herself on vocals and guest vocalists like Ranee Lee and Holly Cole.

A little over three years ago, she moved to New York City, whose scene has been a lesson in itself: "It's been a blast being here, too. There are so many scenes of music here, the level is insanely high so it always keeps you on your toes. So it's been really exciting."

"The beautiful thing about New York City is that there are so many jazz jam sessions. When I first got here I was going every night from one to five in the morning. That's how you meet all the players. That's how you get work, and the legends like Roy Hargrove come down, and they teach you tunes, and it's like school, right? It's like the old days how the beautiful music of jazz gets passed down."

The influence of Ron Carter

She's also had more formal lessons, both orchestration lessons and studying with legendary bassist Ron Carter.

"I have listened to [Ron Carter's] albums all my life. His sound on the bass is so beautiful, and he really revolutionized jazz bass playing. He really has helped me with my sound.

"Sometimes being a girl on the bandstand amongst all the guys, it's almost like playing road hockey with my brother. It's that similar attitude: yeah, I can play. As soon as you're really strong with them, then it's really no big deal, you can keep up, provided you're practicing and you know your tunes. I always, as a bass player, would come in with a pretty strong, aggressive sound.

"Ron has really helped me to just relax and have a really huge sound without overplaying, sort of getting rid of the iron fist. That's been amazing and so inspiring, just being around him. His personality is quite dignified, and that's how he plays. It's very proper and very perfect, so just striving to be a bassist of that caliber. I feel very, very fortunate. I play ballads completely different now."

And she's found she doesn't need the aggressive sound to hold her own as a female musician. "Occasionally on the bandstand they don't know me, and it's here really late at night. They'll either try and smile at you and pick you up, and then as soon as you're playing, they look at you cross-eyed. They don't know what to think. You play your heart out. You play some of your fast licks and you still smile because you still want to have a friendship with them. It's sort of like a little juggling act. You know, day to day I don't think about it."

Bassist, bandleader, vocalist, and composer

Within her groups, Disterheft has multiple roles, as bassist, bandleader, vocalist, and composer, but first is as a bassist. "The bass comes in naturally. I've been playing it for years. You have so much control to change sound or change the groove or the timbre.

"Some of my favorite bass players are Jimmy Blanton and Ray Brown, and I guess it seems like the bass, whatever I hear, I can play, and the bass just speaks out quite naturally. It's such a gratifying feeling to be a bass player in the band, and the band really takes off, and you can actually control that and you can push it further by just playing a little bit on top. It's just such a beautiful feeling, it feels like you're flying or you're soaring."

And then as a bandleader, she can "choose what repertoire you're going to pick, to really excite the audience and make them feel uplifted, and make them feel joyful. Some jazz can be quite cerebral and has this slow pace, but back in the day, it was really dance music. It was joyful, it was uplifting. As a bandleader, that's what I'm always trying to do."

And as a vocalist: "Then [when] we'll play a bebop number or ballad or a fast Latin piece, to be able to sing to the audience is incredible. You see their eyes open up, and you sing a sweet love song or a comical number or a political song, and it's incredible."

In the last few years, she said, she's been studying voice and singing more, in order to "say more to the audience".

"It's quite a freeing feeling. It's finding that I love singing, and I love telling stories, especially my own compositions. So often, I'll write instrumental bebop tunes, or instrumental jazz tunes, and I'll omit the lyrics to make sure that I still have instrumental music. I don't want to be singing the whole time on stage, I think. Look at some of the classical music, some of the most beautiful music, and there's no words [there]."

And as a composer: "And then, I have a love of songwriting. For words, I discovered [that] when you play bebop lines, writing words is the same idea. It's like a big puzzle, and you're trying to talk about what's important to you and what you want the whole world to know about."

Disterheft said that her compositions were inspired "from my surroundings, and what's going on and who I'm listening to." Currently, she had just finished watching the documentary Inside Job for the second time, and that -- combined with the economic uncertainty she was regularly seeing in the U.S. – inspired a new song, "A Letter to the CEO of Goldman Sachs".

In the U.S., she said, "it's just a harder lifestyle. It's just a grind, compared to Canada. ... I think the writing gets a little bit more intense. I think that's why the jazz players play really fast, and they have that beautiful fire."

This social awareness has extended to Disterheft donating some of the proceeds of her second album to an organization called Beckoning for Change, which acts as a vehicle for social activism and spotlights artists who create change in their communities. The NGO was begun by a friend of hers, she said, "and I thought how perfect" – an organization which assists artists who want to speak out about what they're seeing in the world.

However, she pointed out, so much of jazz is love songs and the American songbook. So, even though bebop was "definitely for the African Americans to really stand up and have their own voice too. I understand that, but sometimes it feels funny to sing a political song to the audience."

"I think jazz is there to uplift people, but I think if you can squeeze in a song or two, I think it's important too."

The next album: reflecting her gratitude

New York City has a large expatriate Canadian jazz musician population, which Disterheft said she sees regularly. And one particular expat, Renee Rosnes, will be featured on Disterheft's upcoming album. "I met her at my band teacher's, Mr. Reb's, retirement party. That was such an honor because I always grew up listening to her on albums."

The album, Gratitude (Justin Time), will be released in September. It will be dedicated to Disterheft's cousin David, who was like a second brother to her. He recently died, and the album reflects her gratitude "for the time that I did get to spend with him. ... He was amazing. He lived in Edmonton and he'd drive to Calgary to see our shows."

The album will again be almost all originals, and it's "back to jazz. It's back to the roots that I grew up listening to, so it's really exciting." Some numbers will be "basically in the style of Ellington. You'll hear a little bit of Mingus in there."

"The writing I think is my strongest writing. And the band is cooking." Besides Rosnes on piano, the band will include Gregory Hutchinson on drums ("I've always listened to him on the records. It's been a dream of mine to record with him."), Vincent Herring on alto sax, Ann Drummond on flutes, and Sean Jones on trumpet.

In  Ottawa: groovy bass lines and much more

Despite living in NYC, Disterheft will be playing with an all-Canadian group when she appears in Ottawa: William Sperandei on trumpet, Nathan Hiltz on guitar (both from Toronto), and Morgan Childs (from Vancouver) on drums.

She said the Ottawa audience should be listening for "some groovy bass lines and some uplifting swing, and some fast bebop, and some soulful blues, and some tender ballads, and some surf guitar. We like to ... leave them guessing what the next piece will be. We like to change up the set list a lot and keep it interesting for the audience."

Their repertoire will be a mix of her original songs from our first and second album, and some new songs from the upcoming album, she said, as well as some jazz standards and the American songbook standards.

And, taking her example from artists she toured with like Holly Cole and Michael Kaeshammer, she likes to talk about the music, to "hang out with the audience and let them know where you're coming from and why you're playing a piece."

"That's our role up there is to be entertainers," she said, although she can't match Kaeshammer for jokes: "like from the first word out of his mouth the audience is roaring, and he keeps it going. But you can only be who you are, on stage."

    – Alayne McGregor

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