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Meet Brazil’s Amanda Ruzza, The Next Great Jazz Bassist in Town

Amanda Ruzza On her debut release as a solo artist, São Paulo-born electric bassist Amanda Ruzza showcases an eclectic mix of jazz-influenced sounds heavily grounded on chorinho, a Brazilian genre that predates samba and has lots of European-based sounds.

Ruzza has performed as a session player alongside the likes of Bebel Gilberto, Jason Miles and Simon Katz of Jamiroquai. She is a graduate of the New School in New York City (though she began her studies at Boston’s Berklee College) and with her new debut, she might be the next great jazz bassist out there.

We caught up with her over a phone interview, when she talked about her beginnings, her move to the United States , her current music and her friendship with another female bass player who’s currently on the spotlight.

So you began your career in São Paulo

I started playing in nightclubs in São Paulo – I had always wanted to be a drummer, but I didn’t have the financial conditions to purchase a drum kit, so I thought ‘since I cannot play drums, I will learn bass, because it plays alongside the drummer.’

I fell in love with the instrument immediately, and I started getting involved with the Rock Gallery scene in São Paulo – I started getting lessons there, and next thing I know people are inviting me to play with them.

There was this band a friend of mine played in, so they asked me to play with them and I began playing forró in all the clubs in Brás (note: a São Paulo neighborhood home to northeastern Brazilian migrants).

You played forró?

Yes, but it wasn’t the easy kind – it was really hard to play, because they included songs by Ivan Lins and other popular Brazilian composers. It was a huge struggle for me, because everyone else in the band was very experienced – they were all in their 50s. So I began working regularly in the night scene there.

So from nightclubs to jazz – how did you discover it?

That was thanks to late bassist Nico Assumpção – he was an obscure bass player to American audiences, but he was a very important musician because he changed the lives of many people in Latin music. There are many Cuban musicians that have heard him and that were heavily influenced by his playing – I was recently invited to write a piece for Bass Player magazine about him.

So listening to him I really got into his sound and began researching his influences – who did he hear, and I slowly I started falling in love with jazz and Brazilian instrumental music.

And how was the transition?

It wasn’t really a transition – it was a great passion that I had with jazz, and I wanted to learn the music, I wanted to understand harmony.  So I heard that Berklee College was doing auditions in Brazil for scholarships, and I thought I’d never get in. So I took the audition and got the scholarship, and I wound up in Boston, where I began my studies of jazz.  I studied some jazz in São Paulo, but it only got really serious after I arrived here.

It almost sounds like Esperanza Spalding’s story – she also got a scholarship from Berklee and struggled financially at first… Did you ever get to meet her there?

Yes, she is a great friend of mine.  We were at Berklee at around the same time

So you graduated from Berklee and stayed here…

No, I didn’t graduate there. I did two semesters and I received an invitation to join a country & western band in Nashville – so I left school and toured around the country and abroad for four years.

Country music?

It was country rock – it was a great experience, because I performed in 44 U.S. states, I traveled to many other countries, performed USO shows at the South Korea- North Korea border. I experienced things that I would never have done if I hadn’t joined the band.

But after four years I realized I wanted to go back to school. I wanted to learn jazz, and compose. I sent out applications and received a full scholarship at the New School, and I moved to New York and started studying there.

So you have graduated?

Yes, I have.

And now you have your debut solo.

Yes, but this is a fruit of my collaboration with drummer Mauricio Zotarelli and trombonist Chris Stover and the grooves we have created. We have done a number of gigs here in New York – Stover has invited me to play in some of the other projects he’s done.

I recorded six tunes for a demo, and then Zotarelli (who co-produced the recordings) asked me, ‘Why don’t you record the other stuff as well?’ Other people also suggested the same thing, so I returned to the studio and that is the album you heard, which is the result of the work I have done in the last two years.

I was wondering about that – I saw that part of the disc was done in 2009, and the rest in 2011…

Yes, friends were all saying, ‘finish the record, it’s going to be really great,’ so I went back and recorded the rest.

So how was the choice of songs? I saw that there are a number of originals, but there are also many obscure Brazilian tunes…

There is one chorinho, “Pagão” – I play many other choros on bass, but this one Pixinguinha tune was one that I always played by myself because I always loved it. I had no idea it was a B-side. To me, it was as famous as “Um a Zero.” So I started playing it here in New York and got great feedback, but no one knew the song.

I didn’t

No one does – it’s an obscure song of his. So I decided to make and arrangement for my quintet. I did a show in this Rio jazz club (in Lapa), so I played it thinking everyone knew it, but no one did and everyone loved it.

This was around the time I was going back to the studio, so I decided to include it on the disc. It’s a great example of something that starts from bass to treble – the melody begins focused on the bass and trombone and when it comes to the end the focus is on soprano sax. I like to explore these extremes.

For information on Amanda Ruzza, please visit www.amandaruzza.com

Ernest Barteldes is a freelance writer based on Staten Island, New York. He can be reached at ebarteldes@yahoo.com.

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