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Michael Bisio: Stepping Into the Limelight

By Published: April 19, 2011
I was a freelance musician, a hired gun. All the while there was the pull of this wonderful music, which I did have the opportunity to play as much as anyone in Seattle. By this time I always had my own band and was a member of others. I can remember being on a screaming gig in Bellingham, WA, with the legendary pianist Alan Hood
Alan Hood
Alan Hood
, rushing back to Seattle (my pregnant [ex-] wife was experiencing false labor), and the next day auditioning for the Portland Symphony. I didn't get the job but made the finals. It was at times a very conflicted way of life but I was young, had a family and I was playing music, lucky guy. During this time I did record the aforementioned LPs, Ours and The Past and Tomorrows. My very first recording was a 45, led by local raconteur David Zasloff. Side A was "The Jazz Club," a beat poem with bass, drums, trumpet and shofar. Side B was David's original Christmas carol with drums, bass, vocals and zither. I wish I had a copy.

AAJ: At what point did you feel comfortable with a total commitment to your own musical vision as a way of life?

MB: By my early thirties my direction was clear and I began to resent having to do all those things whose sum made my living. Funny the different things which stand out every time you revisit the past. At some point, I just walked away from doing all those things to concentrate on that thing that retained its meaning.

AAJ: When did you start composing?

MB: I have composed almost as long as I have played music. Both my bass teachers always encouraged me to solve my own problems, and handed me the tools to accomplish this. In the beginning I wrote exercises and etudes aimed at addressing my many problems, both technical and musical. I doubt I even thought of it as composing at the time.

My first documented compositions show up on Ours. They are: "Ours," "Pabio," and "Charles Too!" "Ours" was originally written for Carter Jefferson and {Gary Hammond}}. It is a long song form, 64 bars. "Pabio" I wrote for my father, who signs his stained-glass art with this shortened form of his name. The song was rerecorded many years later by the fabulous Tomas Ulrich for his CIMP release Tomas Ulrich's Cargo Cult (2009). "Charles Too!" is an elegy for Charles Mingus, almost simultaneously released on Ours and The Past and Tomorrows. It also makes my favorite appearance on Composance (2004), a trio release under my leadership on Cadence Records featuring the incomparable trumpeterRob Blakeslee and the uniquely percussive—by that I mean he's also a bitchin' French horn player—and wonderful Greg Campbell, on drums.

During this early period, my compositions mostly carried people's names and/or reference people who were important to me. The pieces are very direct and bound to the moment. This carried me to the late '90s. One of the last tunes I can recall in this vein is "Grimes, Henry Grimes," composed in 1996 for the not-then resurrected bass giant, and meant to be spoken like James Bond would introduce himself. This piece can be found on my quintet CD Undulations (OmniTone, 2000).

AAJ: What was happening in the years following your initial associations with Donald, Smith, and Dempster?

MB: In 1986, I led a band at the first-ever Earshot Jazz Festival, then a fledgling organization founded by Paul DeBarros and the late Gary Bannister. Earshot has continued to flourish for many years under John Gilbreath. By the late '80s I was working with recent Northwest arrival Wayne Horvitz
Wayne Horvitz
Wayne Horvitz
on various projects, and was a regular at the Vancouver Jazz Festival under the direction of Coastal Jazz and Blues Society's Ken Pickering. Ken has always been very supportive, and a key to the beginning of my career. In Seattle (Silkheart, 1987) seemed to open the entire west coast to me and created bonds that carried me thru the next decade even into the present. I've formed associations with Rob Blakeslee, Vinny Golia
Vinny Golia
Vinny Golia
, Michael Vlatkovich, and Bert Wilson, to name a few, as well as the circles of artists associated with each.

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