Michael Bisio: Stepping Into the Limelight
He was a master of positive phrasing, with or without the saxophone. "Beez, you're a bad motherfucker but you got to stand in front of a mirror six hours a day and say 'I'm a bad motherfucker, I'm a bad motherfucker,'" he'd tell me.
This band (Barbara Donald and Unity) was rounded out with another great tenorist, Gary Hammon, Irvin LoVillet on drums and Peggy Stern [piano]. We recorded the LP Barbara Donald & Unity, The Past and Tomorrows (Cadence), released in 1983. This recording experience gave me my first contact with long-time friend Bob Rusch.
My first LP as a leader, Ours (CT Records), was released that same year. It featured the remarkable Northwest players, Rick Mandyck [sax}, Ron Soderstrum [trumpet]}, Beth Chandler [violin], John Bishop [drums] and Bob Nell [piano]. The composition credits were split between me and Rick, plus one group improvisation. The short story is: I played The King and I, starring Yul Brenner, for eight weeks, and with the proceeds I bought a car (a Dodge Swinger), a new bass bag and brought the cats into the studio. Charles Tomaras took it from there. This LP was critically acclaimed on both coasts and named an Editors and Critics Choice, Cadence Magazine, 1983. This visibility (thanks in a large part to Bob Rusch) eventually led to an invitation from Keith Knox to record for the fledgling Silkheart label. The fruit of that association is In Seattle, released in 1988. Among its many honors this album was chosen as one of "Best Jazz Records of the 1980s" in the Village Voice.
AAJ: Were there any drawbacks to making a start in the Northwest?
MB: There were many musical benefits that proved crucial to me but from a career perspective it has made recognition come a bit more slowly. Most creative musicians on the west coast have found that music from the region does not get the attention it deserves. The world still perceives New York City as the center of this music, and tends to be less aware of developments/talent in other areas of the country. Access to the world at large seems more difficult. A humorous example: somewhat more than ten years ago was my first trip to France, with Joe McPhee's Albert Ayler project, billed as Joe McPhee and the World Bass Quartet. This tour was a month long and our hosts were very gracious. About two weeks in, I was asked if I was going to try to speak some French. I replied that I had been trying to interject short phases or even words at appropriate points. They laughed and said they thought I was speaking bad English because I was from the west coast. This was in 2000; yet they understood perfectly and squealed with delight when a New Yorker said "Mercy boutique, motherfucker!" Not trying to be negative here. I think it's funny, but it does illustrate a perception.
It's one thing to create a name for yourself elsewhere, and then move to the Pacific Northwest; it's rather another thing to create a name from there. It's just harder. It's something to overcome.
AAJ: So, regardless, you became involved in a regular gigging situation. Could you talk about your early experience on the bandstand and in the studios a little more? What was it like for you?
MB: I have been a working bassist since I was 19. David Cobb, my first teacher, was very much into everyone working as much as possible. The Northeast US, especially New England, has (or had) many small orchestras mostly populated by doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who had varying musical abilities. They always needed bassists, so David would farm us out for what seemed like a princely sum in those days.
In fact, Bennington College, where I now teach, was the location of my first professional chamber music gig. My early professional days in Seattle were marked by a variety of work. I would go from subbing in the Seattle Symphony to playing Skippers (a club) with the great saxophonist Lonnie Williams. I played pit orchestras, when my son was a newborn I was playing Woman of the Year, starring Lauren Bacall. I played weddings with Tuxedo Junction, for a season I was principal bass for the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, Barbara Donald and Unity would have busy periods; I even cruised...once.