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Michael Bisio: Stepping Into the Limelight

By Published: April 19, 2011
All this reminds me of a story that involved Buddy. For many years, probably 15, I played exclusively gut strings. (During the first years it was not as popular as it got to be, hardly anyone was doing it.) One spring day, an unusually gorgeous spring day for Seattle, my family and I were spring cleaning, windows wide open, no screens. John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
's classic quartet was supplying aid to our efforts at volumes that shook the house. Some flying thing caught my attention. I was transfixed for more than a few seconds by the sight of gut strings, one after the other, in their original wax paper envelopes flying, like square frisbees, through the kitchen window, a ten-foot drop to the deck floor just outside. I ran down the stairs and opened the back door to Buddy's laughter-filled greeting. He said he'd been knocking and calling for more than five minutes, and finally gave up but did not want to leave the strings outside. At his feet was a small box filled with miscellaneous guts, some used, some in pristine condition, all from the '60s. He told me he was moving to a different neighborhood, was cleaning stuff out and wanted me to have them. I still have them today.

AAJ: He sounds like a fantastic, ideal cat to hang with and learn from. Do you still use gut strings? Is it how they respond to bowing that you like?

MB: I no longer use guts—the biggest reason being that they are very affected by climatic conditions. The more I traveled the larger a problem it became.

The thing I loved best about guts was the feel—large, round, and bouncy., an unbeatable combination for me. I loved the sound, very much at the front of each note, especially in the lower to mid registers. As one gets into the upper registers sound becomes an issue, especially during arco passages. That being said, in a textural sense they are wonderful for splitting partials.

There are some really good substitutes on the market today. Barrie Kolstein makes a Heritage line which I really love and have been using for more than five years now. They sound beautiful.

AAJ: How would you sum up this period in terms of your musical development?

MB: In retrospect, the Northwest allowed me to develop within the tradition of this great music, in what I believe were its original intentions and spirit: to know its history, search for the future and to develop your own voice. I did not need to fall prey to fads, I didn't have to choose between being a jazz or creative musician. They were and are the same.

I do not want to convey that I was universally accepted at this time. I did have strong, positive influences which sustained me. There were also less than positive sentiments and many times puzzlement regarding my direction.

AAJ: While all this was happening you were, no doubt, involved in listening as well as playing. What players or what styles caught your ear? Obviously with Smith and Dempster you took a big step into the adventurous zone of the music, but I'm curious if there was a point where listening to particular cats effected you.

MB: My listening evolved probably like most people: you jump into this music at some point that really resonates with your being, then move forward and backward in time from that point. For me there were really two points, the music of Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
sax, alto
for its melodies and interplay. The other was Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
1922 - 1979
bass, acoustic
' music for its power, orchestrations (voicings), and of course, bass playing. I also listened to everyone my mentors would suggest. My early listening was pretty well divided between bebop, free (not a good word), and those artists who combined the two. I have since widened my scope but must admit there are some styles of music that do not speak to me. As I evolve perhaps they will.

AAJ: So at that point you began to branch out, forming new alliances with players and using Seattle as your home base. Could you talk a little about this phase of your career? What were to you the significant recordings you made then? Any early experience as a leader or did that come later?

MB: The phenomenal trumpeter, Barbara Donald (check out Staying On the Watch (1966), the Sonny Simmons ESP album; she's 18 years old !) took an interest in me starting around 1980.

Being in her band was a monumental experience, certainly a primal part of who I am. She was a superb musician, a creative force, always pushing to find the spiritual aspects of music. "Energy, Energy, Energy!" was her most frequent exhortation. I was doubly lucky during those years to share the bandstand with the legendary and universally loved Carter Jefferson, (who also played with Woody Shaw
Woody Shaw
Woody Shaw
1944 - 1989
and Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
1927 - 2004
, among many others). Carter was a most positive and inspirational person. It was always an uplifting experience to be in his presence.

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