Born in a musical family with ties to the Chicago and L.A. music scenes, Brandi Disterheft knew her destiny at a young age. With such incredible music heritage in her blood it was only a matter of time before years of hard work and determination would bring her to New York and the epicenter of the jazz world. Her latest offering, Surfboard, is a delightful mix of covers of songs from jazz bass legends and the title track, a “throw away” Jobim composition as well as her own compositions which have the making to be jazz classics in their own right. Brandi talked with us about her new album and much more.
Congratulations on the Juno nomination! This isn’t your first dance with The Juno’s. You won for your debut, Best Traditional Jazz Album. How did it feel winning the Juno with your debut album? That must have been quite exciting.
Yeah, it was really exciting, I wasn’t expecting to win and I remember my speech, I said, “Jazz is thriving and jazz is alive.” which it is, so that was a big honor. It’s nice to be recognized and it keeps you moving forward.
And then you came out with a sophomore album, which had good critic reviews. That one wasn’t nominated but you’ve actually been nominated four times out of five, which is pretty impressive.
The second one was a little more pop, which I really liked.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about that. Working with Rhys Fulber, obviously, he had a huge influence on the sound of that album, right?
Yes. And he was wonderful to work with. He came all the way up to Toronto and we recorded in the woods. It was great and I wanted that sort of experimental sound. And I think we achieved that. We have a good video, Combien de Chances, (How Many Chances) from that, it was interesting.
I liked it a lot. It certainly was a departure from the first one. Were you just kind of finding yourself experimenting to see where you wanted to go with your music or what was the motivation behind that?
I was touring a lot. And I think I wanted something more mainstream in which I could relate to a wider audience. I might have lost a little bit of the jazz crowd doing that but I had a blast. I had this wonderful guitar player on the album and he made all these interesting sounds, it’s nice to have the freedom to experiment, right?
You definitely got the jazz sound back. Your most recent album Surfboard, I love the title track. Jobim, it’s unmistakable his song when you hear it.
It’s funny; it’s a throwaway too because it sounds quite flighty, surfboard? But then it’s actually such a wonderful composition and the counterpoint and the rhythms almost sound like you’re balancing.
It’s funny, a throwaway from Jobim. Throwaways from artists like that are never bad I would think.
How did you enjoy working with your trio, George Coleman, Klaus Mueller and Portinho?
Portinho is now 82 and he’s known as the definitive Brazilian drummer, and he’s worked with everyone and he has this really particular sound they call the James Brown of the Brazilian Funk Samba so it’s very forward moving and he took me under his wing and basically taught me what to listen to, and to work on all those Brazilian grooves.
Klaus is his piano player and he’s also a very good friend of mine so we’ve been working together for years. I’ve always wanted to do it and then being in New York City you get to hear the jazz giants. Often I would hear George Coleman play and it’s interesting because he’s a prodigy, he’s a virtuoso, but he has his way of making it so relaxed. He makes the other elder gentlemen on stage look like high school kids. It’s this whole other realm of this movement and feeling just this ultimate sound. And so I was thinking, well, how cool would that be to have that sound with the Brazilian theme, and I think it turned out really well and George is so sweet and he had heard of me because of my last album with Harold Maybern, may he rest in peace. He recently passed and he’s from Memphis. George Coleman and Harold were in high school together in Memphis; they grew up together, so that was sort of the connection to George.
You’ve worked with a lot of legends in the business. You set yourself up for this years ago when you moved to New York, didn’t you?
My mom’s from Chicago. She’s a B3 organist and piano player in Vancouver and because I always had dual citizenship she was like, “Brandi when are you going to move to New York?”, so she really encouraged me. Then I moved after I had already established myself in Toronto and then went to further study in my late 20’s with Ron Carter which is a nice time because you already feel like you’ve put in almost 10 years of playing and now you’re ready for this next chapter.
That must have been something working under him. He is the most recorded jazz bassist in history, isn’t he?
Yeah, he is and he basically revolutionized modern bass playing in jazz and his use of octaves and chord tones and pedal points and his sound and his time and the famous Miles Quintet records where they all talk about Tony Williams the drummer or Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter or George Coleman of course recorded with them too. But really, it’s Ron Carter creating this harmony and opening it up. It was wonderful studying with him. Mr. Carter would say, “My way’s the only way. You may like what you hear from other players, but my way is the only way!” and he’d be yelling at me, “Brandi, play lighter, play lighter!” because being a girl I wanted to play so loud, like hockey, like the boys are, I can keep up, and he’s like, “It’s not about that,” It’s about creating this beautiful, huge, almost light sound.
Did he help you a lot with your ability to be a band leader as well?
We never spoke about being a band leader. He is how his playing is, he’s very regal, he’s very dignified, he’s very respectful, he commands perfection. He would say not once but five times in a row, Brandi I want this perfect. So it was almost this Zen, he demanded higher execution than anyone I’ve ever met. So in that regard, it’s how do you hold yourself? How do you want people to perceive you? How are you playing music?
You’re working with professionals in their eighties; you don’t really need to tell them how to do their job obviously. How does it all come together when you work with these gentlemen and record an album?
I was working with Portinho for ten years so he’s one of my very, very good friends. We were able to rehearse the music and we had already tunes in the can ready to go. It was so fun recording because you’re just banging out, banging out, no problem. Then we brought George in and he was just the icing on the cake. And it’s very special, you’re not going to do more than one or two takes. George was so sweet too, because a lot of older people or some older musicians are very protective if they haven’t heard about you and George isn’t like that. He’s like, however I can help you and he was so encouraging. He’s like, wow, you can really play, and all these beautiful things. That’s very rare, it really is.
Do you feel like you’re carrying on their legacy with the music that you’re creating? Do you feel that inside, that as much as they’re giving to you, you’re kind of giving something back by carrying it on?
Oh, that’s sweet. I would like to think so. It feels that way in the moment.
What was it like growing up in Vancouver? What were your influences, what was your musical training growing up?
My mom being a jazz musician, I studied with many local bass players there. And I had the piano growing up, training since I was five, some at the Royal Conservatory, so that helps. Then I had some jazz piano lessons from my mom. I already had quite a base. I remember idolizing Jodi Proznick one of the wonderful strong female bass players and I just grew up in it. There was music always playing. I don’t really know too much about pop culture, it really was always quite jazz heavy. You know, we were forced to practice as kids.
You have a musical family, do you have siblings?
Yeah, my brother and he’s super talented. He was always better than everything I did; art, and now he chose not to pursue that. Mind you he DJs and he makes quite a bit more money than I do deejaying. He could be like, Kid Koala and he just doesn’t want to do it
But you’re following your heart, right? Isn’t that what’s most important?
That’s right. My father worked for Yamaha Canada for many years. He was the director and he made Yamaha the household name before people knew about it. So traveling and putting a lot of the education systems together and the competitions for high school music programs, he had the opposite perspective. Like you want to try and be smart and make some money doing it so I’m still trying to figure out that part. It’s all relative, right?
Yeah. There’s some amazing history as well. Like your mother playing the B3, I love the B3 by the way. She actually opened up for Carlos Jobim, didn’t she?
Yeah, she has such a nice story that she was on the road in Las Vegas, and she romanticizes it saying how they used to have all these wonderful jazz rooms, I guess almost like cabaret rooms and anyway, they were on stage and Jobim was opening up and he was very sweet and they exchanged voicings. She also had a regular gig in Chicago where she was opening up for The Supremes, they were upstairs and there were dancers, so she was always in it. And my aunt is a singer out in LA. She worked with Daft Punk, and she does the whole Brazilian thing.
She worked with Sergio Mendez, didn’t she? I love that whole 60s, Brazilian bossa nova vibe, Getz/Gilberto, The Girl from Ipanema. Have you ever performed that song? Because I love your voice and I think that would just be awesome listening to you sing that?
Yeah, we do a lot actually. When we play that you have to tip us a hundred dollars because it’s so common, but my mom actually has a great arrangement of it. I should delve into it more. I get bored a bit, I like the more obscure songs.
People always want to hear those hits. And as much as I love that song, I can imagine you get tired of it after having to perform it night after night, right?
Yeah, but no, if you delve into it and make your own changes and make it interesting, those are powerful songs and the bridge is really beautiful. It’s really complicated, it’s not a simple song.
Who’s your favorite jazz singers?
I really like Shirley Horn, she played piano and sang, and I like Dinah Washington and love Nancy Wilson. I love my aunt. I wish I could sound like my aunt. She’s so soulful.
Do you find it a challenge singing and playing the bass at the same time, because there seems to be like almost a contradiction there?
Yeah, the learning curve takes so long. It’s not like bass or singing where you learn a tune and an hour later you can perform it. It’s sort of six months later, it’s ridiculous. And you just get used to bombing. That’s why it’s good in New York City, you have these regular gigs and you just bomb and that’s okay until it becomes extraordinary muscle memory from this and this.
How do you go about your writing?
Writing is interesting. I always thought I would need a drink or you hear about the romantic stories about Hemingway and now I’m really efficient. And you have a mood and you develop it and write it down and take bridges and just keep editing it fifteen, twenty times, lyrics included and I love stealing stories from other people. I still try and take piano lessons, just to refresh, just to come up with new voicings and new sounds. Composing to me is the most gratifying and I also feel like I haven’t done enough. Although I do have a lot of originals on my albums, I’ve just been waiting for this magical thing.
I love the piano on the album. I think Klaus is amazing.
Isn’t he amazing? He’s so perfect. Sometimes it’s like a sports thing where I get envious of him. I just want to hit him because he’s so perfect. His time is perfect, his harmony. He studied with Richie Beirach, one of the great modern jazz piano players in New York. He’s great, he’s very sweet.
Each member of the trio in their own way is amazing, obviously.
I sort of stole Klaus. Sharon Jones had that band The Dap-Kings and Amy Winehouse, right, she just came and stole that whole band and then just fronted it. That’s what I almost like to do, like the last album was Harold Maybern and Joe Farnsworth, and they’ve been playing together for 30 years. So I just took that team, took my tunes, lead it and worked it out. So same thing with Portinho and Klaus, they’ve been a team for 20 years. I’ve been part of it for some of it.
You get that rhythm section or whatever and it’s just so organic. And obviously, they respect you because they want to play with you as well, right?
And they hire me back a lot so that’s really beautiful and jazz you know is reciprocal movement so we all keep working.
Part of living in New York as a jazz musician is the constant playing in the clubs, the constant live playing. What have you done in the last year? And obviously, it must have been limited, right?
We have regular gigs at these jazz clubs, Fine and Rare and The Flatiron Room, so those have gone in and out. Some online festival gigs. Supposedly Central Park is really great. I just can’t get myself to go back and play in the park because it really wears you out. I’d rather just compose. I also started an online club called Brandi’s Club Live, which I’m going to start up again every Wednesday night that was really fun.
I want to be a part of that. Everyone’s starving for live music right now. So yeah, we’ve all been kind of latching on to a lot of the live streams and stuff lately and they’ve gotten better. It’s really changed the world and how we operate and how we view everything, hasn’t it?
Yeah, it’s almost like a new opportune time, right? It’s like an opportunity if you can think your way around it.
So you did a lot of creating in the last year?
I did a lot of writing. I pumped out quite a few tunes and I recorded an album with this great piano player, Anthony Wonsey, so we had sort of a writing session where the people in the band would bring a song every week. And then we recorded his album, which is coming out so I’d say I got a lot done. I practiced a lot of things I always wanted to work on. Being a bass player, everyone needs a bass player so we’re playing every night, you know, and weekends, you’re doing doubles all the time. And if not, you can’t say no to triples. It was really a blessing to take some time out and work on stuff I’ve always wanted to work on and then have time to work the album out and I did some videos and that was nice.
I play a little bass just for recreation, but rock bass. I would love to learn how to play stand up bass. It’s funny, bass players always seem to be the brunt of jokes in rock music anyways, but really we’re the backbone.
Yeah. And you have so much control, which is nice. Depending on which notes you pick it just pivots the music. You have the rhythm and when you’re really strong, almost sometimes boss those drummers around. The intricacy of the groove is wild, isn’t it?
Do you miss Vancouver? Have you been back?
I haven’t been back and my parents are very apprehensive about me traveling and just doing the right thing. You’ve just got to wait till it’s the right time. We’ve been vaccinated here and I miss it.
It’s been a real pleasure speaking with you today, I really enjoyed it. And the best of luck with your Juno nomination, I think you’ve got this, honestly.
We’ll see. We’re up against Pat Labarbera and Kirk MacDonald and Pat was my teacher so they’re so great. We’ll see what happens. But of course, the nomination is great. I did want to just really quickly plug my videos because we have such nice YouTube videos online for this album.