Alumna, jazz bassist creates ‘indie jazz’ fusion

Nicole Saphos, a 2012 jazz studies alumna, released her EP “Buzz & Bloom” in March.

Nicole Saphos, a 2012 jazz studies alumna, released her EP, “Buzz and Bloom,” on March 30. Saphos will perform at the Center City Jazz Festival on April 28. | COURTESY / NICOLE SAPHOS

When Nicole Saphos returns to Philadelphia in late April to perform at the Center City Jazz Festival, it will be her first time performing in the city since her college graduation six years ago.

Saphos, a full-time jazz bassist and singer-songwriter, will perform at the seventh annual Center City Jazz Festival on April 28. She will play with her trio at Chris’ Jazz Cafe on Sansom Street near Broad.

“I’m so excited because the festival started in 2012, which was the year that I left Philly,” said Saphos, a 2012 jazz studies alumna. “So I’ve never even been to this festival. I’m super, super psyched about it.”

On March 30, Saphos released her second solo jazz EP “Buzz & Bloom.” The EP features seven original songs that were inspired by her recent life experiences, like her engagement and a physical injury.

It was supported in part by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County, and can be purchased on CD or vinyl and is available on iTunes, Spotify and Bandcamp.

After the release of her first EP, “Tiptoe,” in November 2016, Saphos suffered a moderate concussion. For about a month, Saphos was unable to read or listen to music like normal.

“That whole month changed my perspective on how I listened to music and how I would play and practice, so that was a big part of it,” Saphos said.

Saphos has been playing bass since she was 11 years old. She originally wanted to the play the cello, but her middle school orchestra teacher chose the bass for her when he noticed she had bigger hands that would better fit the instrument.

“Once I started playing, it stuck with me,” said Saphos, who now lives in Washington, D.C.

Saphos was born in Nutley, New Jersey. She moved to Los Angeles when she was 7 years old in 1997.

She started playing jazz music in high school, after her love for the genre developed through the lens of musical theater. She listened to music from plays like “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Gypsy.”

“From a really early age I was listening to musical theater so it was kind of a gateway to jazz,” Saphos said. “It was very appealing music to me.”

“Tiptoe” contained what Saphos called “straightforward jazz.” “Buzz & Bloom” takes a different approach.

“‘Buzz & Bloom’ is kind of a jazz hybrid,” Saphos said. “I’m calling it indie jazz. It has much more pop and folk influence combined with jazz.

Her recent EP was released with Local Woman Records, a label based in Washington, D.C. The title was inspired by American poet Adrienne Rich’s poem, “Thirty-three,” which includes the phrase “buzz and bloom.” Rich’s poem focuses on coming to terms with aging and questioning her future.

“That phrase became something of a creativity mantra for me,” Saphos said. “Anxiety is a common theme throughout the album. … [It’s] kind of how you use your anxiety in a positive way as opposed to letting it put you in a stall in your progress.”

In addition to playing bass in her songs, Saphos also sings. While at Temple, she studied with Joanna Pascale her junior and senior year, who is a jazz voice professor at the Boyer College of Music and Dance.

“I had been a huge admirer of her and her voice for a long time,” Saphos said. “I was getting to a place where I wanted to do playing and singing. She helped me work a lot of stuff out, especially at the beginning of retraining my voice.”

Saphos said that she first became interested in releasing original music toward the end of her career at Boyer when she created her trio in 2011.

Her trio includes her husband, Ele Rubenstein, on drums and John Lee on guitar.

Saphos said that after applying for the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County grant, writing up all the songs and recording them, the album took about a year to finish.

Dave Sanders, a 2012 jazz studies alumnus, became friends with Saphos in 2008 during their freshman year. He said he enjoyed her new EP.

“The fact that it’s all original is really cool,” Sanders said. “Not everyone does that, especially in the jazz world. It’s cool to have a full album of originals.”

Some of her favorite classes included ones she took with jazz studies professor Ben Schachter and Dan Monaghan’s theory classes.

Monaghan, who is also a jazz studies professor, remembers Saphos in his classes, which she took three semesters in a row. After seeing what she has done after graduation, he’s excited that her career took off.

“As an educator, that’s what you hope for,” Monaghan said. “You want your students to take the information that they gain and then want them to go find their own voice and to pursue this craft. She’s the total success story.”

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