Upright bassist Lisa Mezzacappa has been building a steady reputation in northern California for the last decade. Her nimble basslines and arresting compositions have brought her beyond the Bay Area, where she lives, including a rare tour through Los Angeles. Her band the Bait & Switch performs at Little Tokyo's Blue Whale tonight.
Although she doesn't perform here much, she serves as curator for the Hammer Museum JazzPop series. "That's a good excuse to stay connected to the scene," says Mezzacappa, calling from her home in San Francisco. "Keeping that exchange between the Bay Area and L.A. is important. There is so much wonderful stuff out there beyond New York. It's like, 'Oh my god we have a jazz festival without it being all New Yorkers!'"
That said, Mezzacappa does have some experience in the Big Apple. She grew up in Staten island, before moving out to California for grad school at UC Berkeley. "I was intending to stay only for a little while. Then I got completely pulled into the Bay Area scene."
Part of more than a dozen ensembles, Mezzacappa is finally making waves with her own compositions. Aided by frenetic saxophonist Aaron Bennett and a rhythm section that includes guitarist John Finkbeiner and drummer Vijay Anderson, she released her debut album last year, What is Known, and won the Best Debut award in the Village Voice jazz poll.
"I think it's just nice to be part of a conversation," she says. "But as a New Yorker it was pretty fun to be on that list. I used to wait for that list every year."
The album is definitely not dinner party music. From the first downbeat, the band attacks with a stuttering honk that explodes into elastic guitar lines and relentless drive. The music commands attention, drawing its influences from some of the avant garde slingers of the 1970s, including Terry Riley, Sun Ra and Henry Threadgill.
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"I met Henry at UC Berkeley," Mezzacappa says. "I was mostly focused on academia, but after working with him I knew what I wanted to do." But despite all the intellectual heaviness, the band can be funny, too. A propulsive take on Captain Beefheart's "Lick My Decals Off, Baby" could rattle a listener's dental work out if they aren't careful.
Out of the top fifty records on last year's Village Voice poll, only seven of them were led or co-led by women, but Mezzacappa doesn't see this as much of an obstacle. "I feel like it is becoming less and less of an issue," she says. "Now it seems like there is so much more going on and I've gotten more support because of it - playing this crazy instrument in particular. I feel more supported than thwarted."
With that powerhouse band, her compositional chops and an album to back it up, she shouldn't feel any other way.
Lisa Mezzacappa's Bait & Switch plays this Thursday at the Blue Whale in Little Tokyo. 123 Astronaut E S Onizuka Street. $10