Robin Bramlett remembers the joyful noise permeating the Sunday air, so spirited and full of praise it could be heard in the parking lot outside St. John’s Baptist Church on East Brundage.
Those soul-stirring gospel grooves not only opened Bramlett’s heart to her spirituality but to music as well. She thinks back to her earliest inspiration almost every day, when she reaches for her shiny bass guitar stationed prominently in the front room of her home. Flipping the power switch, it’s only a matter of seconds before that comforting low hum begins to resonate, transporting her back in time.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve always just gravitated to the low frequency of the bass,” said Bramlett, 38, who by day works as a social worker. “I’ve always had that in me. I can’t really describe it.”
Bramlett’s reputation in the Bakersfield scene is as solid as the grooves she’s more than capable of laying down. She’s a familiar face at local festivals, nightclubs and as a mentor to young musicians.
Above: Robin Bramlett. Photo by Michael Lopez
“I go into every gig with the idea that I’d like to be called back. So I’m gonna rip it up when it’s time to play.”
Though there’s no way of getting around the fact that the bass usually is played by men, keep your judgments at the door. Bramlett actually welcomes the chance to challenge any preconceptions her audience might have.
“I used to get some attitude and had some stuff happen to me onstage, along with the looks like, Oh, you play bass? Even at church. Then they hear me, and things change.”
Bramlett took time this week to speak with The Californian, after a daylong rehearsal in Los Angeles with one of her latest projects, Jazz in Pink, an all-female band of California jazz and R&B heavies.
Above: Jazz In Pink
“I approach everything with feel. That’s what I’ve always found to work and something that works for me as a self-taught player with some knowledge of theory.”
The youngest of 11 siblings, Bramlett said her parents, William and Lillie, presented her with a guitar, drums, keyboard and bass when she was 8. Music was encouraged as long as it was used in service to her parents’ strict religious beliefs. She began to anticipate Sunday services, where the band would back the booming lead vocals of choir member Herbert Clay.
“His voice just pierced the room when he sang,” Bramlett recalled. “I wanted to sound just like that.”
Galvanized by Clay and the other musicians at church, the young player intensified her daily practice regimen.
“I never used a guitar pick and I used to play until the strings broke. I noticed they never broke on the bass. I sat here for hours trying different things, playing along to music we had in the house, mostly gospel.”
Bramlett’s interest in secular music eventually made its way into her play-a-along sessions, through a radio/cassette player she kept in her room. Unaware of the tendency to categorize music by genre, she found herself absorbing everything from R&B, rock, to country music.
“Con Funk Shun, Lakeside, Shalamar, the bassist from Slave, I loved all those bands. The first R&B song I learned to play was ‘Let’s Celebrate’ by Skyy. I even remember listening to Kenny Rogers on the radio. I didn’t know genres, I only knew music.”
At 18, Bramlett was given an opportunity to join the worship band at St. John’s Baptist church. Guided in the ways of gospel bass-playing techniques and styles from congregation mentors Donald Factory and Don Hicks, she also studied music at Bakersfield College. Her forays into jazz and funk would open new doors outside gospel music, carrying her to the present.
Above: Robin Bramlett
Former Bakersfield music promoter and keyboardist Rose Carbajal, who now runs Southern California-based artist relations company DB Group, recalled hiring Bramlett for a new band to back up percussionist Louie Cruz Beltran in early 2000.
“He (Beltran) was very impressed with her,” Carbajal said. “She was funky and knew how to play. Her work ethic was very serious. She and I played together as Nu Brazil a few years later; that’s when I really got to see her chops. Robin presents the music from the perspective of the bass, very tastefully.”
Beltran agreed, saying he’s seen few bassists that can compare in any line-up.
“Her knowledge to adapting to different style is very unique and second to none. She’s very much a team player, good at her craft and versatility. You see a woman who’s leading a path to breaking the mold and she definitely has proven that it’s not a gender, it’s the talent.”
Saxophonist Darren Gholston, a longtime collaborator, probably knows more than anyone about Bramlett’s playing, having known her since they both were in their teens. Bramlett’s graceful licks have been among some of the highlights during Gholston’s live shows at the Bakersfield Jazz Festival and the Nile Club. Plus, he says she’s been known to tear up a few church gigs from time to time.
“We used to pick her up for church when she didn’t have a car and now she’s got instrument endorsements and people calling to hire her. It’s just a beautiful thing to see,” he said. “There’s something about Robin. She’s like a sponge. Even from a young age, she was into every kind of music she could get her hands on. It served her well, because it taught her how to play in the pocket. She’s never stopped learning.”
This weekend (July 27-28, 2012) Bramlett will be backing up legendary soul singer Miki Howard for a two-night stint at the prestigious Catalina Bar & Grill jazz club in Hollywood. Plus, she has a series of shows lined up for another side project, Hit Like a Girl, leading up to her long-awaited solo CD, “This Is My Life,” scheduled for an October release.
“No matter where I’m playing, I just wanna be happy where I’m at,” she said.