And now, ladies and gentlemen, for her next project, Lisa Mezzacappa announces "Glorious Ravage."
Coming our way in 2015, this evening-length performance piece will feature a small orchestra and visual projections by five experimental filmmakers, all of it inspired by the adventures and writings of "lady explorers" of the Victorian era -- "all these women in the late 1800s who yanked up their petticoats and kind of zipped across the planet," Mezzacappa says.
Having dreamed up the concept, the Berkeley bassist and bandleader will compose the music and recruit the participants.
She's been planning it for three years, though it isn't all she's got going -- not by a long shot. A ubiquitous presence in the Bay Area's underground arts scene, Mezzacappa collaborates with sculptors, poets and neuroscientists, leads one band that plays vintage French-Caribbean tunes (Les Gwan Jupons) and another that specializes in snarling skronk jazz (Bait & Switch quartet).
On any given night, she is likely to be performing in some small venue you didn't know existed, around the corner from where you live. She has toured with Donovan -- a rare above-ground gig -- and recently founded her own label, Queen Bee Records.
"She has the vision," says Rocco Somazzi, an East Bay music presenter who first met Mezzacappa in Los Angeles, where she programs the annual jazzPOP concert series at the UCLA Hammer Museum. "Everything she's involved in is top-notch and has impeccable taste, whether she's playing in a band or curating. It's rare, her set of talents."
"We've done a lot of weird things together," says visual artist Deborah Aschheim, a steady collaborator who has watched Mezzacappa improvise music in response to her own brain data as it streams across a screen in a UC San Francisco neuroscience lab. "She sees being an artist as being inherently collaborative, and she's one of the most unselfish people I've ever met. Lisa's not into being a star. She's building a community."
Mezzacappa terms herself an "instigator." When she performs, wrapped around her upright bass, she tugs and tickles the strings, shaping sturdy lines that coil, uncoil and stealthily interact with her band mates. She patiently propels the music while assessing what her next moves should be.
One senses that this is how she lives, too. She is well-prepared, grounded and always on the lookout for the next surprise. Anything can feed Mezzacappa's music: her interest in the journals of those "lady explorers," her love of noir detective novels, or her addiction to the Criterion Collection of foreign and experimental films on Hulu Plus. When she meets or hears about another broad-minded musician, she follows up; one result is that she has just returned from a monthlong tour of Germany and Italy.
As hardworking as she is creative, she supports herself as a freelance arts writer and publicist, working for the Oakland Ballet, Cal Performances and other groups.
"The music I like to play is not very commercially viable," says Mezzacappa, 39. "So I can complain about it, or I can figure out how to make it work. I grew up very working-class. I always had a million jobs: painted houses, worked in bakeries."
Growing up in Staten Island, New York, she took up the clarinet in the fourth grade and became a youth symphony star, shuttled everywhere by her mom, Agnes, who worked for the phone company. Starting in junior high school, Mezzacappa also played electric bass, "jamming with dudes in garages," doing Jimi Hendrix tunes, funk and metal. She dyed her hair blue and was an A+ student.
At the University of Virginia, where she majored in biology, Mezzacappa "just sort of cross-faded to upright bass," added a second major in music and began to get loads of jazz gigs, some with her teacher and mentor John D'earth, an outside-the-box trumpeter.
After moving to UC Berkeley in 2001 to pursue a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology, she crossed paths with composer, saxophonist and flutist Henry Threadgill, one of jazz's most profound thinkers, who was in residence at the university. She left the program after receiving her master's degree and began to explore the Bay Area's experimental music scene.
"I think of myself as a lapsed ethnomusicologist," she says, sipping a coffee at Caffe Trieste in Berkeley, one of her neighborhood haunts. "But I'm still interested in the culture of music scenes and economics and art worlds and how everything connects."
She thinks that her music -- and the music of her improvising peers -- may connect one day to more than a fringe audience.
Like a special meal, her music mixes familiar ingredients, but in unexpected ways. It has "that visceral rock feeling or that jazz propulsiveness. It's open to new information. It's not stuck. It's constantly moving and breathing and changing with what's happening in the world. And I think that resonates with people. Music lovers want the experience of being surprised, of getting snapped into focus, of feeling, 'Ah, we're all here right now.' "
Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069. Follow him at Twitter.com/richardscheinin.
Bassist and bandleader
Performing with Les Gwan Jupons: 12:30 p.m. Thursday, Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, San Francisco, free.
Performing with ROVA saxophonist Steve Adams: 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Studio Grand, Oakland, $10 at door
Performing with Bait & Switch: 9 p.m. July 14, Duende, Oakland, $10, duendeoakland.com
Other July performances: Go to www.lisamezzacappa.com
Claim to fame: Toured with Donovan, starting in 2004; curates the Best Coast Jazz Composers Series at the Center for New Music in San Francisco
Quote: "Life is pretty short, and if you're fortunate enough to have found something that gives it meaning, that is a gift -- and it's worth a whole lot of sacrifice."