Any of us who have spent time in and around the Buffalo music scene knew it was an undeniable eventuality.
There was just no way that Zuri Elise Appleby wasn’t destined for bigger things. Not better things, necessarily – that would imply that the music she has been making here most nights of the week over the past several years isn’t up to the same standards as the sounds coming out of Nashville, New York or Los Angeles, and it most definitely is. But bigger things – of the sort that allow a working musician to drop the day gig, make a living solely from music, and get on the track to being “first call” in the broader world.
The “bigger thing” came bassist/singer Appleby’s way last week, in the form of Nick Jonas, former teen star with the Jonas Brothers, turned soul-pop sensation on his own turf.
Jonas was looking for a bass player for his rapidly approaching tour, and he knew he wanted a female, someone whose playing was impeccable, but who also looked the part – that part being flashy and sensual without being too over the top, apparently.
Appleby, out on the road at the time with another Buffalo musician who is making noise in the broader work, David Michael Miller and his Miller & the Other Sinners ensemble, heard via email of an online audition for the Jonas job.
After much back and forth – including an urge from Jonas’ management to smile more and have more fun with the material – Appleby found herself on a flight to L.A. By last Sunday, she could be seen prominently during a Jonas Band preshow performance as part of MTV’s yearly VMA celebration. In October, she’ll be performing with Jonas at the Phoenix Concert Hall in Toronto, by that point having already logged a solid month’s worth of gigs running from Philadelphia to Atlanta to Las Vegas and back. It all happened that fast.
Funny how a matter of days can change your life forever, isn’t it? Funny, but in Appleby’s case, not at all surprising.
She’s the daughter of musicians Rodney Appleby and Linda Appleby, both of whom are supremely gifted. She began singing and playing in church at a tender age. She graduated from the Buffalo Academy of Performing & Visual Arts, and shortly thereafter, became the first female bassist of color to successfully audition for a spot in the U.S. Marine Corps Band, a position she held throughout a full tour of active duty. And she arrived back in Buffalo after her honorable discharge already seasoned and ready to play.
Play she did, quickly earning a status as the first-call bassist in town for virtually every R&B, soul, blues, funk and fusion project going. She played weekly at DBGB’s in Allentown as part of Verse, a group founded by guitarist Michael DiSanto that featured a rotating cast of neo-soul singers and musicians as special guests, dubbed the Neo-Soul Tuesdays series, a regularly packed event; She was a full-time member of funk powerhouse Critt’s Juke Joint; She performed before a massive audience at Canalside this summer, as bassist with the ensemble that produced the Tribute to Stevie Wonder collaboration with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.
This is but a fraction of her resume, but even this broad sketch of her accomplishments is one that any independent working musician in town would rightly lust after. (Full disclosure – I once performed as part of an ensemble with Appleby, backing the Toronto jazz trumpeter Brownman in a program dubbed “A Funk Supreme.” I recall describing to a friend what it felt like to play with Applebly in the rhythm section as “Like a walking on a cloud stuffed with feathers.”)
My reaction to the news of Appleby’s ascension to a big-time touring gig with a pop star might not be the same as the reactions of others, however. Sure, my first thought was “Good for her, this is a more than deserved opportunity.” But almost immediately, what struck me was just how lucky Jonas is to have her. If Stevie Wonder, D’Angelo, Hiatus Kaiyote or any number of soul icons and next generation neo-soul bright lights had discovered Appleby, it would, in many ways, make more sense to me. She’s a player of that caliber, a musician whose sense of the groove, whose feel, and whose ability to put the right note in the right place is unquestionably top-tier. Jonas’ music is more straight-forward pop. Appleby has the funk much more than her new boss has yet proved himself to possess. This gig will place Appleby in front of large crowds, however, and that’s right where she belongs. Who knows what might happen next?
As far as ambassadors of the Buffalo music scene to the world at large go, we couldn’t ask for a more skilled, more musical, or more genuinely gifted one. More significantly, Appleby is a warm and generous person with a strong work ethic and a deeply ingrained love of music, one passed on to her by her family. We know she’ll make us proud.
You’re a lucky guy, Mr. Jonas. You grabbed one of our brightest stars.