PORTLAND — Dominic Sbrega has only been playing the upright bass for two years, but the 17-year-old has already made a name for himself on the national stage.
Sbrega, a junior at Deering High School, was one of only six jazz bassists in the country to be chosen as a finalist for the 2009 Grammy Jazz Ensemble. He was the only bass finalist who attends a public school; the other five attend private art schools.
The Grammy Foundation has been giving young musicians an opportunity to win scholarships and perform in front of musical giants in Los Angeles clubs during week of the Grammy Awards since 1993. Performances, which will take place the first week of February, will include a tribute to Neil Diamond and the Grammy after-party, which promises to be a star-studded event.
Although Sbrega was not selected to perform in Los Angeles, simply being named a Grammy finalist ranks him among some of the best jazz bassists in the country.
“I was pumped,” Sbrega said. “I didn’t know how good I was.”
His mother, Diane Sbrega, said her son by no means comes from a musical family; only his uncle is musically inclined. But she said her son’s musical abilities were noticeable at an early age, when he got his hands on a piano.
“He started pounding the keys a little and began showing some promise,” said Sbrega, who is also her son’s manager.
From there, Dominic would routinely visit a neighbor’s house, where they had a full-size piano. After tickling the ivories for several years, Sbrega picked up the violin, an instrument on which his mother said he also showed promise, but no passion.
“As soon as I started playing the violin I wanted to stop,” Dominic said.
Sbrega found his calling seven years ago when he picked up the electric bass. And while he has only been playing the upright bass for two years, it sounds like he has been playing it his entire life – an amazing feat for a instrument that’s as physically challenging to play as it is technical.
“It’s a really physical instrument,” said Sbrega, also the principal bassist in the Portland Youth Symphony Orchestra and the Portland Youth Wind Ensemble. “I’ve gotten buffer ever since I started paying it. People ask me if I work out and I don’t know what to say.”
Sbrega, who also been chosen for All State jazz band and jazz combo, auditioned for the Grammy Jazz Ensemble by recording a 15 minute DVD with his high school jazz ensemble, The Pentatonics. For tunes, Sbrega chose “Billy’s Bounce,” “Footprints” and “Nardis.” Throughout the tunes, Sbrega had to show that he could improvise – the litmus test for any jazz musician – and, of course, that he could be funky.
“That’s what (the judges) are into, improv,” said Sbrega, who lists Avishai Cohen, Ray Brown and Christen McBride among his many influences. “They want to hear how you fool around with the music.”
Being named as a Grammy Jazz Ensemble finalist confirmed what others had been telling Sbrega about his talent: that it was extraordinary. During a performance last Friday in his dining room, Sbrega’s fingers danced nimbly up and down the large fretless bass, moving easily from solid notes, to harmonics, to big chords.
“It just comes naturally to me,” he said.
Sbrega said he hopes that being a finalist will help him earn a scholarship so he can attend music school in New York City. His sights are set on Juilliard, the Manhattan School of Music and the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.
But he’s not sitting on his laurels waiting for schools to come knocking at his door. Sbrega has already entered a competition for a student music award from Downbeat, the country’s premiere jazz magazine, and will be applying for a music camp in Boston. He also plans on auditioning for jazz icon Dave Brubeck’s summer jazz colony in California.
Sbrega, who plays an occasional Sunday jazz gig at the North Star Cafe with John Linscott, said his success in the Grammy competition has not only motivated himself to scour the Internet for contests, but it has also motivated his band mates.
“They’re applying for everything now,” he said.
Sbrega said he researched the bassists who were selected to perform during Grammy week to see whether they would be competition next year, when he hopes to make the cut. Surprisingly, Sbrega said that he was one of the few high school juniors to be named a finalist.
“Ninety to 95 percent were all seniors,” he said.
If he makes the cut next year, Sbrega would be eligible to receive a portion of the more than $2 million in scholarships offered by the contest’s partner schools.
Deering High School junior Dominic Sbrega shows off his award-winning skills on the upright bass at his Pamela Road home in Portland last week.