Brandi Disterheft talks new album Surfboard: ‘It’s very special’

Bassist, vocalist and composer Brandi Disterheft is joined by some of the most experienced musicians in the world for her upcoming album, billed as her “most accomplished yet.”

The Juno Award winner based in New York has been making a name for herself while playing with some of the biggest names in jazz over the last 10 years, including Harold Mabern, Vincent Herring, Benny Green and Renee Rosnes.

Recently, Disterheft announced the details of her fifth album called Surfboard. She also shared the title track, a tune by the great Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Jobim.

Arriving Oct. 30 via Justin Time Records, the record features the talents of virtuoso tenor saxophonist George Coleman, definitive Brazilian drummer Portinho and world-class pianist Klaus Mueller. Surfboard features blues and jazz standards along with songs from the Great Brazilian and American Songbooks.

Disterheft joined us to talk more about the new album and the musicians who helped her take a creative step forward with it.

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Are you at home in New York?

Yeah, I’m in Washington Heights — uptown Manhattan.

Is that where you’ve been these last five months? What’s it been like?

Basically yes. It was very quiet, initially. But things are really picking back up in the city. The venues haven’t opened, but there are a lot of patio performances and the big venues have a lot of online streaming. So, slowly but surely the whole scene is coming back.

During that time, could you find inspiration and creativity? Did you retreat from your instrument, or did you dive into it?

I’ve never had so much time off, being a bass player who plays every single night. I revelled in it. I wrote a few songs, and then it gave me a lot of opportunity to get my game together for this album release.

When did you record this new album?

We recorded in January of 2019, so I was sitting on it for a long time.

I want to talk about it in a second, but I just wanted to get your thoughts on Harold Mabern, who is someone you worked with and who was such a giant musician who passed recently.

I really, really, really miss Harold, more so than I thought I would. He was such a monster of playing. That comping, and that style, and the feel, and his generosity, and the fact that he was such a gentleman and encouraging, he set this high bar in every way possible — which is not always the case when we meet some of our heroes. And of course, George Coleman on the new album, they grew up together. They were kids in Memphis.

I was thinking about the way you approach recording. I don’t know if it’s conscious or not, but you always have an old guard to match with your new-guard approach. Is that something that’s been a conscious decision?

No, it’s just… When you’re out in New York, there’s so much wonderful music and you find yourself in certain scenes. I had recorded with Vincent Herring’s band up at Smoke Jazz Club, which is close to where I am uptown. You just hear certain musicians. And Harold Mabern, that trio was the best thing going. To me, that’s the ultimate music, because he blends modern with avant garde, then he plays some of the real cool singers who make you want to dance. Same thing with George Coleman. Watching him play rings around even the older musicians who have stature, and at the last minute he changes key and people are struggling to even play the song — it’s just his old-school, beautiful mentality. The fact that he’s [85] now, and he sounds so beautiful, so robust, it’s this deep feeling. It’s hard to explain. So, it’s just trying to get some of that into my playing and record that.

Had you played lots of live gigs with George before you asked him to be on the record?

No. He had heard of me because I was playing with Harold’s trio, so I always said hello to him but I never really knew how to foster a relationship. I asked him for a lesson and we worked on the double diminished. We played songs at his house, and he was so generous, and he took the time to write out all these notes for me, and it was fantastic.

George Coleman was like Ray Charles and B.B. King, and then he moves on to Miles Davis. So, he’s got this incredible breadth of information and musicality to bring to whatever he does, including this new album.

It’s incredible all that he did. But beyond that, how he’s playing now is just wonderful to watch.

You’ve put out the first tune now, but the full album doesn’t come out till October. You’re just letting people wet their beaks right now, correct?

Correct. This is the trio, and we have this wonderful drummer Portinho … He’s known as the James Brown of the Brazilian funk samba, and you can hear it in everything he did. This trio has been playing together for about 10 years, since I moved to New York. Porto really took me under his wing. “Brandi, to play Brazilian music you need to do this, listen to this, try this.” He really curved me into this bass player he likes — or at least that I think he likes.

The first tune is called Surfboard, which I’ll tell you is a dynamite name for an album or a song.

You could say it’s about the balance of life. It’s by Jobim, who is the co-founder of bossa nova. This is his obscure song. It was in Portinho’s book. He knows all the great songs from the ’20s and ’30s in the Brazilian songbook that we’ve never heard of.

Is there an overarching concept of what you were trying to do with the record? Does it lean bossa nova throughout?

I would call it a Brazilian album. We don’t swing one song. But to the common listener, I don’t think it sounds like a Brazilian record. I think it sounds like all my interests accumulated.

When I was listening to it earlier, it’s somewhat undefinable. It’s unto itself, in a lot of ways.

That’s right, but we do have some classic Brazilian songs on the album. The trio also has some beautiful Sam Jones arrangements, and Oscar Pettiford, the big bass people. The wonderful thing about the trio is that we take the jazz standards and make them into their own Brazilian arrangements. It’s very special. [Also], I wanted to brag about pianist Klaus Mueller.

Please, go ahead.

So, Klaus played with Harry Allen and all these wonderful names. He plays so perfectly and has this beautiful touch, and he swings so hard and has this wonderful grasp of harmony. But he also was the orchestrator for Herbie Hancock’s album Gershwin’s World. So, he has quite a mind on him.

How did you and Klaus get together?

I first met Klaus, and then he introduced me to Portinho. It’s sort of like how the last record was Harold Mabern and Joe Farnsworth, they were already a team. So I went in and joined this team, and we’ve been playing together for 10 years.

That must be very gratifying, to have played with these people for 10 years and then finally get into a studio under your own name and feature what you’ve done.

It was very easy. It was the least stressful situation, because you can [record songs] in one take, no big deal.

You have roots here in Canada. I guess it’s hard to come and go. Do you miss it? Are there plans to visit?

My parents are sailing now, for the past eight weeks. I would love to be back home in Vancouver and just be out of touch. I would have rather spent the quarantine doing that, but I couldn’t go home. I miss it so much. Actually, the last gig I did — well, I had one in Connecticut, but right before that was with JAZZ.FM91.