For those of us who don’t keep up with the contemporary jazz scene, it’s far too easy to be unaware of the exciting and groundbreaking work still being made within the field. Case in point is JUNO-winning bassist, composer, and vocalist Brandi Disterheft’s latest album Blue Canvas, her third release with Montreal’s Justin Time Records.
As part of a stripped-down trio featuring 80-year-old hard bop veteran pianist Harold Mabern on piano, along with drummer Joe Farnsworth, Disterheft has crafted a powerful collection that makes an immediate impact with its instrumental fireworks. The pieces themselves are a combination of Disterheft’s own compositions—including a handful of vocal turns as well as her recording debut on cello—and interpretations of classics by Clifford Brown, Tadd Dameron and others.
All in all, Blue Canvas is a timeless record that, on one hand, is a throwback to a vintage post-war approach, while on the other hand it displays the chemistry that can result when three top-notch musicians come together in the studio.
Disterheft captures that feeling in her liner notes for the album, referencing the Muses of Ancient Greece and how they could lead the artist into a state of ecstasy. It’s that feeling of pure joy and freedom that jazz, at its best, conveys, and Disterheft indeed channeled that on Blue Canvas.
A native of North Vancouver, Disterheft has been based in New York for several years. However, she maintains strong ties with Canada’s most prominent jazz festivals and players. She recently shared her thoughts on the Canadian jazz scene, as well as the creative process behind Blue Canvas.
What makes Blue Canvas stand apart from your previous work?
This album is an exploration of the divine madness. In Ancient times, as philosophized by Plato, it was believed that inspiration was a gift. In Latin, the word “inspiration”means “to breathe into.” This gift came from the Gods, who were muses, and would inflict frenzy on the artist whom would enter a state of ecstasy. This possession from the Gods was unsought, uncontrolled, and irresistible. I was perplexed as to where my inspiration came from.
Since I can remember, I would lay down under my mother’s piano as she transcribed Bill Evans; I was enthralled with this endless discovery of the sound of jazz. Now that I live in Harlem, a few blocks away from Duke Ellington's residence, I am still overcome with an unsettledness to unravel this joy that is drenched in swinging jazz. The title track is a story about this same unyielding fervor, as the character “freedom” shares with me the divine madness.
Also, having been on the road and traveling around the world three times last fall alone, I’ve visited the Picasso Museum in Barcelona twice. Picasso’s blue period intrigues me. It appears he found solace in these complex hues of blue. I have read about blue not portraying melancholy, but—indigo specifically—infinity and strength.
There’s a lot of great raw energy on this album because of the trio format. Was this a fun record for you to make?
Since I was a little girl, I have always dreamt about making a trio album. I love all the classic trios from Red Garland, to Wynton Kelly, to Bill Evans to Phineas Newborn, to Oscar Peterson, to Sonny Clark, Tommy Flanagan. I wanted that rare nostalgic and romantic sound of decades of musicianship and language representing how joyful, yet unprecedented life is. I knew fundamentally I wanted burning, raw, and soulful elements to be present; therefore, it was obvious I had to bring on board Harold Mabern and Joe Farnsworth.
Harold is originally from Memphis, and his musical lineage is astounding. Over the decades he has performed with all the jazz icons starting out with Jackie Mclean, Blue Mitchel, Lee Morgan, Sarah Vaughan, JJ Johnson, Stanley Turrentine, Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Lionel Hampton, Betty Carter, Johnny Hartman, and Donald Byrd to name a few. Harold makes the piano sound like a roaring orchestra, and he is hands down one of my favorite pianists. His trio was one of the first bands I fell in love with upon moving to New York.
Joe and I were already a rhythm team as sidemen for various albums for the hard bop saxophonist Vincent Herring on the Smoke Sessions Label. Joe makes playing music effortless, as though everything I pump out on the bass all of a sudden swings harder and has finesse. To play time with Joe can feel like effortlessly soaring up into the sky while holding onto an oversized helium balloon gliding over a raging river. I first heard Joe live with Pharoah Sanders in my early twenties and later with Wynton Marsalis' band. You never forget hearing Joe play live.
Joe and Harold have been playing together for over 25 years. I am very humbled, honored, and excited to share this album.
What is your perspective on the jazz scene in Canada, now that you’re based in New York?
The jazz scene in Canada is thriving. We have pockets of immense talent and creativity spread out from the west coast to the east coast. We have icons who have changed the course of jazz and many living legends. We have camaraderie on an international level and it is a known fact that Canada leads in the arts. My father introduced me to many world-class Canadian jazz musicians as a youngster. He always emphasized how important music education and band programs are in the school systems to continue fostering this talent in younger upcoming generations.
What do you recall about your first time performing in public?
It is difficult to recall the first performance because as children my mother would force my brother and I to perform everywhere and all the time. Even to this day, if I am anywhere with my folks and there is live jazz, my mother has already spoken to the band without my knowledge and out of nowhere I hear, “We'd like to announce a special guest on upright bass.” I do remember being asked to play piano in Third Grade, and this time I willingly wanted to. I began playing Linus and Lucy. All my classmates began smiling and then bellowing in laughter. This led to uncontainable dancing at which point the teacher had lost control of the class. I caught onto this and must have repeated the song 100 times with a gradual accelerando as to not disturb nor stop the party.
What song in your catalogue means the most to you and why?
“Crippling Thrill” is a suite I wrote [for Blue Canvas], that begins with a resonate and soulful solo bass “Prelude To the Crippling Thrill.” It illustrates that delicate and rare occasion, a potent nostalgia or pain from an old wound, pain in your heart, a place where you ache to go again.
I live to play jazz and I am blessed I get called to play every night in New York City. Bass players! We play all the time and often get called for three shows in one day. There is a lot of chaos and music already in my head. Therefore, when I have down time, I want only silence. The silence allows me to write and composing gives me back my freedom.