For as long as she can remember, jazz bassist and singer-songwriter Nicole Saphos has always gotten lost in the elegant emotionality of The Great American Songbook. This treasure trove of stories resonated deeply with her from a very young age. To get closer to the music, she dedicated her life to studying and performing it.
Now, as a young songstress and seasoned musician, Saphos shares her vision of that timeless slice of culture with her debut album, Tiptoe; a collection of imaginatively arranged standards, and originals organized around a journey of personal revelation.
At the tender age of 11, Saphos began playing music, choosing double bass over cello—“it was go big or go home,” she says, laughing—and continued to perform and study the instrument in formative music programs in school. Upon graduating high school, she decided to study jazz bass at Temple University in Philly. Born in New Jersey, but raised in California, the move east was transformative for Saphos. “It was a gamble to go to school there and study jazz bass,” she allows. “But the scene was so intimate and supportive, it taught me so much about jazz.”
Upon graduation, Saphos relocated to DC, attracted to its strong bass tradition, and began her professional musician career in earnest. To date, she’s performed at such venerated venues as The Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, Strathmore Mansion, and The Kimmel Center, among others. Saphos has played with such esteemed artists as Terell Stafford, Joanna Pascale, The Cab Calloway Orchestra, Sharon Clark, Chuck Redd, and Paul Carr. She has been featured in the Washington City Paper, and earned the Exceptional Bass Soloist Award from the Essentially Ellington Competition in 2008.
In 2012, she formed her own trio which has coalesced around drummer Ele Rubenstein and guitarist John Lee. The subtle beauty of this guitar trio, Saphos’ lyrical and cleverly rhythmic basslines, and the sweet longing of her vocals make time stand still. Tiptoe’s mesmerizing nostalgia makes it that a Fiona Apple song doesn’t feel anachronistic next to standards by Irving Berlin, and Thelonious Monk, among others.
“What ties everything together is an outside element. Artists like Mingus, Monk, and Fiona Apple don’t fit in a mold of what jazz or pop should be. My writing also doesn’t fit within a convention.” Saphos reveals.
Tiptoe salutes Saphos’ foundational love of musical theater through having an act one and act two narrative arc. First, she sets the stage with a brisk and reverential reading of the Cole Porter chestnut “Just One Of Those Things.” Next, Saphos intrepidly follows this with her original, “Broken Ballerina,” which uses a ballerina’s dedication to art as a powerful metaphor. Ballerina’s careers are tragically cut short by injury and age, yet knowing this fate, they still commit their lives to this fleeting time. This reflects the album’s overarching narrative of self-acceptance in light of a doomed relationship. The apex of this struggle comes forth on “Doesn’t Do,” here Saphos’ vocals swing and swagger with bitter sweetness, as she grapples with her heart (just) not doing what’s expected of her.
Other album highlights include Fiona Apple’s “Hot Knife,” Monk’s “Ugly Beauty,” and the Don Raye and Gene DePaul standard “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” “Hot Knife” skitters along with a playfully retro swing sensibility. Here, the trio cooks, frothing over with a dexterous and climactic guitar solo. The trio turns in a gorgeously sparse reading of “Ugly Beauty” with Saphos singing the head’s melody sans lyrics with sublime and soulful melodicism. The album concludes, and the curtain drops, with a simmering version of “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” the treatment here is a funky beat and vocals that conjure both sorrow and sass. There’s no happy ending here, but there is a final feeling of self-acceptance.
Up next, Saphos will be actively gigging in support of Tiptoe, and embracing this new era as an assured artist. “This has been an empowering time for me,” she shares. “I’ve learned so much about my potential and gained a lot of confidence in my artistic vision. I’m looking so forward to the road ahead.”