With the help of jazz icons, Brandi Disterheft is making her own legacy

“She is what we call serious,” Oscar Peterson once said.

Juno Award-winning Brandi Disterheft has been backed not only by the legendary Peterson, but also by the iconic Ron Carter — and she’s been carving out her own legacy in jazz.

The Canadian bassist, composer and vocalist has been living in New York for the past few years, and she’s been winning audiences around the world with her fiery playing, captivating voice, swinging originals and innovative live performances.

Disterheft won a Juno for her 2007 debut — aptly titled Debut — and she is now prepping her fifth recording that she’s hoping will be released later this year.

This Sunday night, Disterheft is bringing her trio to headline the TD Markham Jazz Festival. She joined us over the phone from her home in New York to chat about her respect for the idols that helped her career, and to tell us a bit about what we can expect from her forthcoming new record.

Scroll to the bottom if you’d like to listen to the full audio of the interview.

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On this day in 1925, Oscar Peterson was born. I was just wondering about your thoughts on him, as a musician and as a human being?

I grew up listening to Oscar Peterson. He was always playing around the house. My mom’s a piano player, so as a little girl I was playing along to his music. In my early 20s, I had the chance to play for him. He was a big superstar, sitting right in front of me when I was playing, and he really supported me and gave me the confidence to believe in my sound, to move to New York City, so I have a great appreciation and gratitude toward Mr. Oscar Peterson.

Oscar said hey, you should go to New York, get on the front lines, you’ve got the gift and the talent to do it? It was those types of accolades?

He said something along the lines of comparing me to his late bassist Ray Brown, and about my time feel. When someone of that stature that you idolize is now saying, “Yeah, I see it in you,” it’s a dream come true. You just need a little push in life to keep you moving forward.

You mentioned your mom was a piano player. I know your aunt was a Grammy-winning vocalist. How did you end up picking up a bass?

My father thought it would be comical for this little girl to be playing a gigantic instrument. I was on piano since I was a little girl, and making the switch was much more fun. It was very exciting …

[My parents] really fostered me. They wanted me to go to a strong music program. It was in North Vancouver, where Renee Rosnes, Marc Rodgers and Laila Biali went.

It sounds like it was baked into the cake that you would be a musician, based on your parents. Was it preordained?

No, my father worked for Yamaha for many years and he was the best of the best struggling. So, he absolutely did not want me to do it, whereas my mother was a musician and said, “Brandi, why don’t you move to New York City? What are you doing? Anything is possible!” So really, quite the dichotomy. In the end, you just do it for yourself. You can’t stop. You just do it for the music.

You talk about the move to New York City. I’m always fascinated by the leap of faith that it takes to go to the jazz capital of the world, where everyone goes to cut their teeth and work their way into the scene. I know you’ve been there for a number of years and by all accounts, you’ve broken into the scene in a big way. Can you give me a snapshot of how daunting it was and what that process has been like over the last few years?

I was taking an overnight bus from Toronto to New York every single week, because I still had a lot of great work in Toronto. It was quite overwhelming. You really build a thick skin. If you can hang with people, you know tunes and you make friends, it all comes together.

When someone gives an answer that, I always know that they’re incredibly talented to make it sound like that. Yeah, you can show up, but you’ve got to have the goods to be accepted in that community. 

Well that’s very nice of you, thank you. I also wanted to come here to study with the great Ron Carter.

When you have a lesson with Ron Carter, can you give me a sense of what it’s like?

He’s a real teacher, which is rare … He has this grace about him, and he expects perfection. I have never had such a strict teacher in my whole life. Being a female, I thought I have to show how strong I am, what a loud sound I have. And he really was like, you don’t need to do that. You have to create this beautiful sound, lighten up your touch — trying to make me more refined.

In those situations where you say he’s incredibly strict, is it intimidating or is it so safe because you know it’s coming from a good place?

He says he wants it perfect not one time. He wants it perfect five times in a row. It’s beautiful. You’re almost in this space in your head where it’s beyond concentration. It’s just respect for the music.

You briefly mentioned this: I believe in May you were in the studio working on a new album that should be out soon. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve cooked up already?

I’ve been working a lot with a Brazilian drummer who’s in his 80s now named Portinho. He plays with Tania Maria, Harry Belafonte, Paquito [D’Rivera] and all the guys. He really took me under his wing and said Brandi, don’t do this, try this, listen to this. We have this beautiful repertoire. I sort of made a Brazilian album with special guest George Coleman. He’s playing all the time here, so it’s great to have him.

When do you think that’ll be available to us?

Hopefully by the end of the year.

I can’t imagine all the moving parts when you’re a working musician trying to put an album together, and then coming up to Markham to play, it must feel like a juggling act.

No, it’s very nice, especially when I get to play in Canada. That’s an honour. It’s wonderful.