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On Tuesday night, as he kicked off his Bohemian Caverns residency, trumpeter Donvonte’ McCoy had a healthy mix of local veterans and new young talent in his quintet. Elijah Easton is a promising saxophonist, with a tone like Dexter Gordon‘s and a predilection for eighth-note runs; pianist Bill Murad has chops for miles, and drummer Howard “Kingfish” Franklin is a force of nature pure and simple. But the bassist—-a last-minute substitute whom McCoy’s intended bassist, Blake Meister, had recommended—-I’d never heard before. Her name was Nicole Saphos, and she was good. Actually, she was excellent.
As has been said many times before, D.C. is a bass town. The competition makes it hard to leave an impression around here. And indeed, Saphos was not a flashy player, nor (for most of the set) even a particularly loud one. But if you ask bandleaders of any size or instrumentation what they’re looking for in a bassist, they don’t usually say flash or volume. What they want is a hearty, rock-solid beat. That is what Saphos brought to the bandstand above all else. Even when you couldn’t hear that beat, you could feel it.
It is no mean feat to keep up with ‘Fish Franklin. It’s unfair to say he makes those mighty salvos and clattering cross-rhythms look easy, per se, but they certainly look easy for ‘Fish. Through it all, though, Saphos held her own. She played a slithery but indelible groove on McCoy’s funk arrangement of “The Gal in the Calico Dress,” including a steady-as-she-goes melodic solo, and rocketed through a uptempo “Take the A Train” to close the first set.
Saphos, as she told me between sets, is a relative newcomer to D.C. Raised in Los Angeles, she moved to the capital after graduating from Temple University. She works days at a yoga studio, and in her off hours works the Sunday brunch at Smith Commons and, more often, at Columbia Station where she regularly subs for Stephen Synk. And, as her website indicates, she’s a formidable, robust vocal talent as well.
This was Saphos’ first appearance with either McCoy or Franklin, and her first appearance at the Caverns, ever. So it’s safe to say she’s yet unseasoned among the wildly gifted passel of D.C. bassists. But, as Mozart once said of a young Beethoven, keep your eye on her. One day she will give the world something to talk about.