Right from “Homme,” The first track of Brazilian Girls’ self-titled 2005 debut, Jesse Murphy has been up in the mix, flaunting a warm, interactive approach that has made him one of New York’s pre-eminent left-field bass stylists. Using a simple set of tools—a 4-string with action high enough to sound fretless, a Korg microKorg keyboard, an octaver, and occasionally a pick—Murphy has become known for pièce de résistance bass parts that are surprising but always deep in the pocket.
His harmonically hip, dancefloor-friendly magic is just the tip of the iceberg, however. Growing up in the 1980s in Santa Cruz, California, Murphy was equally obsessed with classical harmony, reggae and ska, and West African music. Upright studies at the University of Southern California solidified his deep foundation in classical and bebop, but a move to New York and immersion in the Big Apple jazz scene as an upright player led to burnout. By the end of the 1990s, Murphy had joined John Scofield’s Überjam band, an exhilarating experience that introduced him to guitarist Avi Bortnick and to drummer Aaron Johnston, Murphy’s future rhythm-section partner in Brazilian Girls.
The band—Murphy, Johnston, keyboardist Didi Gutman, and frontwoman Sabina Sciubba—occupies an omnivorously cosmopolitan universe of its own. Sciubba sings in French, German, Spanish, Italian, and English; Johnston and Murphy, who share complementary approaches to their instruments, bring warm-blooded soul to Gutman’s distinctive production elements, which include pop, reggae, samba, house, acid jazz, and lounge flavors. Brazilian Girls and Live in NYC (2006) pressed all the right buttons with tracks like “Don’t Stop,” “Pussy,” “Corner Store,” and “Lazy Lover”; Talk to La Bomb (2006) continued that streak, liberally dishing out tango and electro-pop gems like “Jique,” “All About Us,” “Last Call,” and “Sexy Asshole.” New York City (2008) expanded the palette, swinging from sweetly old-school “Berlin” to the dance-punk of “Good Time” and insistent strangeness of “Ricardo” and “I Want Out.”
Ten years later, Murphy owns a world-class skill set that has brought him tuba, upright, and electric bass gigs with a long list of luminaries, including Joe Jackson, Meshell Ndegeocello, Antibalas, John Zorn, Bebel Gilberto, Regina Carter, Natalie Merchant, the Nublu Orchestra, Thievery Corporation, Karl Denson, Martha Redbone, Jeff Hamilton, the Bloomdaddies, and Seamus Blake. Brazilian Girls’ latest, Let’s Make Love, may not be as overwhelmingly international (or four-on-the-floor) as past albums, but songs like “Go Out More Often,” “We Stopped,” and “Salve” prove that the band—happy to fold indie-rock and current retro flavors into its canvas—hasn’t lost its gift for magically uplifting choruses. Jesse and his Mustang Bass, of course, are still in peak form.
Do you find you need brighter strings on short-scale basses?
Yes. On a P-Bass or J-Bass, dead strings and dark tone are great, but on this instrument, which doesn’t have quite the same tension, it helps to have a little brightness. Short-scales inherently have that dark character.
What do you love about the Mustang?
When you juice the amp and play lightly, and when the action is a bit higher, it can sound incredibly huge. It’s so easy to get around, and it’s such a joy to play. I also own a Fender Musicmaster, but I don’t get to use it often; it’s more of a recording specialty. Turn the tone up, and it’s the nastiest punk-rock bass; roll the tone off, and it’s a thunderous reggae machine. But the Music-master just isn’t diverse enough.
You started on tuba, right?
I got deep into tuba from age 10 to 14, and then I started playing acoustic bass, and electric. I was playing in reggae and ska bands, and my parents were always listening to West African music. The ’80s were a good time in Santa Cruz; it was a sweet spot. By the time I was in my mid 20s, I was getting into the jazz/hip-hop world, crossing over big time, and that felt good. But I needed to change it up, and that’s when I moved to New York.
How’d you develop your style?
I’m an amalgamation of my interests: classical music and harmony, West African rhythm, and clave. On a fundamental level, I’ve always had a deep interest and appreciation for inversions and voice-leading, and I always felt very connected to my body, to dancing, and to African music. These things are part of my playing because they are long-term, life-long loves of mine.
It’s a well-kept secret that you’re a serious upright player, too.
I kept it under wraps for a long time. I studied with John Clayton at the University of Southern California and with Paul Ellison, whose teacher was François Rabbath. When I was studying with John, he opened all these doors—when he couldn’t do a gig with Milt Jackson and Tootie Heath, he sent me. It was great! I ended up doing a whole bunch of work with Cedar Walton for the next couple years, and I got to play with folks like Billy Higgins and Jeff Hamilton.
What changed when you moved to New York in 1992?
Out west, the older guys I got to play with were cool; it was so mellow. But New York was just heavy. I bailed out of the jazz scene in the mid ’90s, and I started getting more into the groove stuff. I always felt connected to making people dance, and I started to miss that.
What led you to join Scofield’s band?
I was at my wit’s end, totally broke, about to leave New York, but having way too much fun, when I started playing with Sco to support Bump, in 1998. Überjam came out in 2002. It was an incredible experience, and I met Avi Bortnick, which was the greatest connection. When I got tired of playing jazz, I started hanging out at [renowned New York club] Nublu more. That’s where Brazilian Girls started, and Shitty Shitty Jam Band [featuring Murphy, Bortnick, and Johnston] played there a lot, too.
And now you’ve been playing more jazz.
Yep. I went on the road with Regina Carter and did a record with her, and I started breaking out the tuba again. When I played with Natalie Merchant, she had me play tuba on a couple songs; Joe Jackson did, too.
Were you playing Graham Maby’s lines?
It was the Joe Jackson Bigger Band, so I was playing a combination of Graham’s bass lines and the stuff Christian McBride played on The Duke, Joe Jackson’s Duke Ellington record. I was playing upright, electric, and tuba. That was fun! It’s rare to be on the road and have access to my instruments.
I read that you’ve done a ton of transcribing.
I did a tremendous amount when I was younger—tons of Ray Brown, tons of Coltrane, ad nauseam when I was studying with John Clayton. These days, people send me music to learn, and my experience transcribing helps me get the subtleties, which are so crucial. I did that in Joe’s band with Graham’s and Christian’s stuff. I listened to it, wrote a lot of stuff down, and picked it apart.
How do you find time to practice on the road?
It can be tough. I felt like I was spending the first half of every acoustic gig trying to get my muscle memory back. So, I began combining this idea of linchpins so I’d feel comfortable moving through harmony. To me, those linchpins are the diminished and whole-tone scales, and their offspring, the half-diminished and altered dominant. It’s the basis of a method book I’m calling The Harmonic Murphy Method.
You’ve played with Brazilian Girls drummer Aaron Johnston in so many situations, including the Avi B Three, California The Band, Love Trio, Suite, and with Scofield, KJ Denhart, Steve Kimock, and Jason Darling.
Aaron is a monster. He’s tasty and simple, and all of a sudden … boom! To me, great drummers are orchestrators; tension and release-wise, they know how to arrange. And I have no problem telling drummers that they’re in charge. If I start pulling back, they’ve got it.
At Brazilian Girls shows, there’s always a feeling that the band is flying by the seat of its pants. The listening is spectacular.
Not rehearsing and not gigging often keeps us on our toes; it forces us to really listen. We’ve just rehearsed for the first time, ever, because Bill [Campbell] is subbing for Aaron on this tour. We know the music cold, but it’s not just about that music: It’s about a kind of attention or presence with music. In the song we’re doing at this moment, there’s always room for conversation.
Brazilian Girls, Let’s Make Love [2018, Six Degrees]
Basses Fender Mustang Bass, 1966 Fender Music-Master, Fender Precision (mid-’60s neck, ’70s body)
Strings Dean Markley roundwounds (.045–.105)
Other Korg microKorg synth, Korg Kaoss Pad