[Troy Collins interviewed composer, bandleader and bassist Lisa Mezzacappa about her New World Records release Glorious Ravage.]
Troy Collins: Some biographical information might be beneficial for readers unfamiliar with your background. You moved from the East Coast to the Bay Area in 2001. How did you first get your start playing where you grew up, in Staten Island?
Lisa Mezzacappa: First, I played clarinet and alto sax in elementary school concert bands and orchestras, since there was still a lot of music in the public schools in New York when I was growing up. Besides the school ensembles, I studied privately and played in at least a few different orchestras and bands after school and on the weekends. I was really serious about it. This was from about age nine. At the same time, I was a devoted consumer of classic rock – I had inherited a friend of the family’s record collection, and just jumped into The Who, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Bruce Springsteen. I started playing electric bass when I was about 12 or 13, and connected with some guys from school who were learning guitar at the same time. From then on, playing in bands, and going to see shows, consumed pretty much all my time outside of school, through my high school years. I spent most of my free time in mosh pits and in garages and basements at band practices. We just devoured any music we could get our hands on, and tried to learn it – classic rock became hard rock and hair metal, then death metal and hardcore, then funk and soul, then ska, then eventually we discovered Mingus and Stevie Wonder around the time we all scattered to go off to college.
TC: It’s interesting that you started on electric bass as a teenager, playing in rock bands. It’s refreshing to see more gender diversity in music nowadays – but not so long ago that wasn’t the case. Were you aware of any other female bassists when you decided to switch to bass yourself? Were there any influential teachers, mentors or musicians that inspired you to take up the instrument?
LM: There weren’t many any other girls playing the music I was into, when I was a kid playing electric bass in high school – only one or two I can think of. In that way it’s interesting, I play with a lot of women musicians now, but we all came to the music very differently – a lot of my peers now studied jazz from the start, or started out as classical musicians who then got into improvising or experimental music. But almost none had that same history of playing with guys in garages as their formative musical experiences. A confluence of factors led me to jazz and the upright bass in my first year of college. I had just discovered the music with my friends (we went to see the Mingus Big Band at the Time Cafe every Thursday we were able) and it was starting to take a hold of me. I was encouraged very early on (really with no experience) to join the jazz ensemble and jazz improv classes at the University of Virginia where I went to college. The trumpeter and composer John D’earth ran the program there, and immediately took me under his wing and encouraged me. My second semester, I started upright lessons with the bassist Pete Spaar – who was the principal in the symphony as well as the first-call jazz bassist in town – and that pretty much derailed all my plans for the rest of my life! I was a biology major and not planning to pursue music formally. After my first bass lesson, the following weekend there happened to be a jazz festival on campus with the theme of “Bassmasters” – and Richard Davis, Dave Holland, Charlie Haden, Milt Hinton all came and did concerts and masterclasses. So that pretty much settled it...