Artist Feature:

Lisa Mezzacappa
By Ken Waxman

As a teenage electric bass player in metal, punk and ska bands on Staten Island, Lisa Mezzacappa probably never envisioned her eventual musical future. But today, Mezzacappa, 39, concentrating on acoustic bass, is acknowledged as one of improvised music’s movers and shakers in the Bay area, where she has lived since 2001. She has recorded 12 CDs as leader or co-leader, many more as a sideperson, played all over North America and Europe, and as “musical instigator” organizes local concerts. New Yorkers can see her in action this month gigging with non-West Coast players, including two Brooklyn-based musicians who complete her cross-country trio.

“As a kid I was encouraged to pursue whatever I wanted, and I only really let myself commit to music later in life, almost in my thirties, even though it was always a big part of who I was and how I spent my time.” she states. “Later, living in the Bay Area, I think the collective kind of grass roots way people make music has definitely lead me to get more active in curating shows, putting on series and festivals and being involved in multi-disciplinary projects.”

Mezzacappa took up electric bass at 13 and spent her teenage years in garages and basements playing rock music. Her original bass role models were Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, Sly and the Family Stone’s Larry Graham, Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris and Metallica’s Cliff Burton. After her exposure to jazz in university however, “I really got into Mingus, and all the bass heroes: Dave Holland, Paul Chambers, Wilbur Ware, Ray Brown Jimmy Blanton, Ron Carter, Scottie La Faro, etc.,” she recalls.

Impetus for the change was what she terms the “seductive and supportive local jazz scene” in Charlottesville, where she enrolled in the University of Virginia, initially as biology major, but emerging with a BA in music in 1997. “The university became my unofficial jazz school. I started taking upright bass lessons, learning everything I could from local players, like trumpeter John D'earth, who was a real mentor for me early on, and within a few years I was playing constantly. I sold all my punk and hardcore CDs at the local record store to immerse myself in the Blue Note catalogue. Returning to New York on college breaks, I was addicted to the Mingus big band at the Time Cafe, later David Murray’s band at the Knitting Factory, and I spent an absurd amount of time at the Internet Cafe checking out Tim Berne, Tony Malaby and all their cohorts.”

By the time she was accepted at the University of California, Berkeley, graduating with an MA in ethnomusicology in 2003, Mezzacappa realized that her definition of “jazz” was very broad and it has expanded since she has made the Bay area her home. “There’s such an incredibly wide range of music people make here that is masterfully improvised or involving improvisation and that touches on so many musical genres and traditions,” she notes “There’s the excellent electro-acoustic weirdos coming out of Mills College; the folks who worked or trained with Braxton when he was out here; the ROVA sax quartet, etc. So I guess the improvisation part become the overarching concept of interest to me.”

Because the West Coast has a smaller number of promoters, most creative music venues and/or series are musician-run, explains the bassist. “As I became more integrated into the scene, I would sometimes see a need for a performance opportunity and tried to make that happen.” Some of the undertakings include the Makeout Creative Music Series in San Francisco’s Mission District, which began 4½ years ago; “Festivus” or “Festival-of-Us,” an annual mini festival celebrating the local creative jazz and improvised music scene, that takes place at San Francisco’s Center for New Music (CNM), and is now in its second year; plus the newest, The CNM-based Best Coast jazz composers series. Additionally Mezzacappa programs the JazzPOP concert series at Los Angeles’ UCLA Hammer Museum.

This activity hasn’t stopped her from playing regularly however. Besides gigs in bands with among others, clarinetist Cory Wright and trumpeter Darren Johnston, her Bait & Switch quartet includes tenor saxophonist Aaron Bennett, guitarist John Finkbeiner and drummer Vijay Anderson, while Nightshade features Wright, Finkbeiner, percussionist Kjell Nordeson and electronics whiz Tim Perkis. Other affiliations include the Liza Mezzacappa Trio with NYC guitarist Chris Welcome and drummer Mike Pride; the Eartheater trio with Finkbeiner and vocalist Fay Victor; and BODABODA, with Italians, reedist Piero Bittolo Bon, tubaist Glauco Benedetti and drummer Francesco Cusa

“I never set out to have long distance bands, but sometimes you fall in love…” she jokes. “Mike, Chris and I started playing sessions when I was visiting New York, and it started to feel like a band, with a particular chemistry and sound and approach. Fay came out here and hired me to play a concert backing her up, we really clicked, and I couldn’t stop thinking about wanting to write music for her after she left. I travel to Europe alone quite a bit to play with local improvisers, and last year met Piero through a friend of a friend. Again, we really hit it off musically and decided to co-lead a new band that would be able to play where he lives and where I live. So these things happen organically despite my better judgement.”

While she describes some of her groups like Nightshade as “textural and chamber-like”, those on her newest CDs, Bait & Switch’s Comeuppance and her trio’s X Mark the Question can be heard as abstract and asymmetrical variants on rock-styled music. This may have something to do with her garage-band background, as well as the fact that most of her bands feature a guitar.

“I just hear the guitar whenever I start writing music, or imagine the sound of a new group,” she admits. “I often feel like I speak the same language as guitarists as improvisers, which maybe comes from having come up in so many different guitar-centric musical styles. Guitar players obsess over their sounds, too, and I appreciate that. The guitar can just do anything: texture, noise, lyricism, angular melodic intervals or floating clouds of harmony. It can be foreground, background, the glue that holds it all together. It’s endlessly interesting to me.”

Besides finishing up a CD with Victor and organizing a new Bait & Switch project, inspired by crime fiction, the bassist is also expanding the work she does with experimental filmmakers. Mission Eye & Ear, another series she curates, involves commissioning local musicians to compose and perform live scores for shorts by collaborating filmmakers. “It’s been especially fantastic to bring these films to cities around the world when I’m on tour,” she adds. “I haven’t done one in New York yet, but hopefully soon.”

There seems little reason to doubt her capacity to come up with and keep presenting more and different projects. As she declares: “It’s nice when labels and venues express interest in us as improvising musicians. But we can’t rely on any of that support to make our music or get it out there. Instead I have very much a west-coast DIY ethos.”

Recommended Listening:

Lisa Mezzacappa's Bait & Switch Comeuppance (Not Two 2013)

Lisa Mezzacappa Trio X Marks the Question (Queen Bee 2013)

Golia-Eneidi-Mezzacappa-Anderson Hell-Bent in the Pacific (NoBusiness 2012)

Lisa Mezzacappa & Nightshade Cosmic Rift (Leo 2011)

Lisa Mezzacappa's Bait & Switch What Is Known (Clean Feed 2010)

—For The New York City Jazz Record April 2014