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20 Seattle Jazz Musicians You Should Know: John Bishop


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The high level of musicianship, mentorship, variety, and general hanging that was the norm around here, is the keystone to what the jazz life is to me.
—John Bishop
The city of Seattle has a jazz history that dates back to the very beginnings of the form. It was home to the first integrated club scene in America on Jackson St in the 1920's and 30's. It saw a young Ray Charles arrive as a teenager to escape the nightmare of Jim Crow in the south. It has produced such historical jazz icons as Quincy Jones and Ernestine Anderson. In many instances it has acted as a temporary repose for greats such as Jelly Roll Morton, Joe Venuti, the aforementioned Charles, Larry Coryell, Julian Priester and Randy Brecker, to mention but a few.

With this series of features, I will introduce you to twenty jazz musicians currently living and working in Seattle. It is not to be seen as any sort of ranking, it has no positional value in that regard. It is simply an effort to introduce the jazz world at large to the vibrance and innovative nature of the jazz scene in and around the jewel city of Seattle, Washington.

5. John Bishop

To say that John Bishop has had a profound impact on the life of jazz music in the Pacific Northwest, and more specifically, the city of Seattle, would be a sizable understatement. His influence has cast a spotlight on the vibrant Seattle scene on an international scale. As a musician, record label owner, festival presenter, graphic designer and educator, he has contributed mightily to the profound sense of community that exists presently and historically in his home city and abroad.

Raised in Eugene, Oregon, it didn't take Bishop long upon arriving in Seattle to recognize that something truly special was happening in the city. He witnessed the veteran presence, and a wellspring of young, talented players such as himself on the scene. This identity with Seattle would accompany him down his path to becoming an internationally recognized drummer, and further down the road, operating the highly regarded Origin Records label.

In July of 2018, Bishop told All About Jazz columnist Jakob Baekgaard, "I'm afraid I don't have much choice for the Seattle branding. Diving head first into the scene when I was 22, the players and sounds of Seattle are my life-blood, so it's impossible to escape. Still vivid is the 1981 concert I heard, my first night in town, with Art Lande, Gary Peacock, Jerry Granelli, Jim Knapp, Denney Goodhew, and Dave Peterson. They all taught at Cornish College of the Arts and were pivotal in inspiring the next generations of Seattle musicians and others who moved on to define many movements in jazz over the last 30 years. At the same time, Floyd Standifer, Ernestine Anderson, Bill Ramsey, Hadley Caliman, Buddy Catlett, Julian Priester and others who played with Quincy Jones, Basie, Herbie, Louis, were playing around every night, adding a 'blue-collar' component—both in musicians being ready to do yeoman's work on any gig that came up, and a solid, hard-swinging foundation underlying our sound. The high level of musicianship, mentorship, variety, and general hanging that was the norm around here, is the keystone to what the jazz life is to me."

Bishop took advantage of opportunities to play with prominent artists early on, performing with the likes of Lee Konitz, Benny Golson, George Cables and Kenny Werner among others. In Seattle, he formed musical alliances with players that he continues to perform with in current times, including bassist Jeff Johnson, saxophonist Rick Mandyck, multi-instrumentalist Jay Thomas, and guitarist John Stowell. By the time the 90's rolled around, he had formed a forward-thinking trio with Mandyck and Johnson that performed weekly in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. The gig became a focal point on the Seattle scene for innovation, for creating a sound that reflected the creative impulse of the city. Stowell, who was consuming a steady diet of opportunities globally, would drop in, as would a number of prominent Seattle players. Bishop's unique, intuitive qualities drew wide acclaim, resulting in touring dates, and appearances on over 150 albums.

As far back as 1987, Bishop has performed with the trio New Stories with pianist Marc Seales and bassist Doug Miller. Though the band would perform often in trio, they gained a reputation for performing and recording behind prominent artists such as Don Lanphere, Ernie Watts, Bud Shank, and the Grammy-nominated Song for the Geese (RCA, 1997) with Mark Murphy. The trio's association with Watts was revived with the featured main stage performance at the 2019 Ballard Jazz Festival. It has as well been celebrated by the re-release of their highly acclaimed album Speakin' Out (Origin,1999). Other prominent recordings include Remember Why (Origin, 1997), a nod to bebop pioneer Elmo Hope, Hope Is In the Air (Origin, 1998), and two classics with Lanphere- Home at Last (Origin, 2002), and Where Do You Start ? (Origin, 2003).

In 1997, Bishop formed the jazz label Origin Records (named Jazzweek's 2009 label of the year), and Originarts, a graphic design and CD production company, with the aim of increasing the exposure of creative artists and their music. In partnership with drummer/composer Matt Jorgensen, the label has released over 650 albums from 300 artists. In 2002, they added OA2 Records, and a classical imprint, Origin Classical in 2008. The label would as well create the Ballard Jazz Festival in 2003, a four-day event that features Seattle artists with visiting jazz dignitaries from around the world convening in the historic Ballard neighborhood. It became apparent that Bishop's skills as a musician extended into his role with Origin, and as a graphic designer. It raised the question of how a dedicated jazz musician could as well inject his creative instincts into his life as a business operator.

"I don't consider myself to be a businessman, I consider myself to be a researcher, and I'm just doing stuff that's related to music. It just happens that the label works within that realm. I just feel like I'm a musician, doing my thing and it happens to have something to do with putting out records and all that stuff," he observes.

With so many independent recordings being released in present times, Origin has offered a community of prominent musicians, and the ability to distribute to radio stations, journalists and media outlets with the requisite respect the label has earned over time with those entities. Bishop literally has his imprint on every label release-each recording features one of his original graphic cover designs. The identifiable look of the product accompanies the unique musical signature the label has developed through its international presence and outreach. One could draw a parallel with ECM records in terms of original presence.

Much of Bishop's innovative qualities have been most clearly identified by his presence in groundbreaking trios. Within the trio form, the communicative thread guided by intuition allows a unique equal partnership that releases the participants from more traditional roles. Simply put, everyone is just playing music. Bishop and bassist Johnson met up upon Johnson's arrival in Seattle in 1989, and have since formed a partnership of two musicians who truly "sound like themselves." Playing in trio with piano royalty such as Jessica Williams and Chano Dominguez, highlights the due respect the two have earned in tandem. But it is with pianist Hal Galper that their most original playing resides, where they became the perfect fit for Galper's rubato style. This vision, first documented on the Origin release Furious Rubato (Origin, 2007), formed as a late career innovation for the intrepid Galper, something that had been surfacing in his playing, and the style of his music, over decades. It features a more elastic sense of time, beyond the use of polyrhythms. It represents perhaps, the most significant innovation in the jazz piano trio idiom since the Bill Evans Trio of the early 1960's. It is something that is more sensed than understood graphically. Bishop's almost symphonic style, and unique ability to play in the actual moment, folds perfectly into Galper's rubato vision.

Bishop's musical compatibility with Johnson was the key factor in playing with Galper in the first place. Johnson had just spent 10 years in his trio, along with drummer Steve Ellington. Following the dismantling of the trio, Johnson stayed in touch, occasionally sending him recordings of projects going on in Seattle. Among them were recordings with guitarist Stowell that somehow piqued Galper's interest. It prompted him to visit Seattle, and a chance encounter in Bishop's living room.

"He flew out and played in our living room. We played maybe 12 bars and he said, 'Let's just try this without, you know, just play it, forget the time. Think of this as just rubato.' So we did that for an hour and a half or so. The next day we recorded the record, and then basically never talked about it ever again," recalls Bishop. "So the idea was to understand the concept and then just go. That's what's kind of amazing about all of that, anything went. So we would just start playing, and then afterwards there was no going back. Never have for 13 years."

In that sense, he became a catalyst to what Galper was looking for, and along with the trailblazing work of Johnson, became the missing piece to his rubato vision. That relationship over 13 years has resulted in seven groundbreaking albums. All but one are in the trio format, including the most recent release, The Zone (Origin, 2019), recorded live in 2016 in Edmonton. The previous outing, Cubist (Origin, 2018), features tenor saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi, and earned a 5-star review at All About Jazz.

Trying to convey this open and interpretive concept of time in words is profoundly difficult, if not impossible. It certainly feels different to the listener. When asked how it feels to play, after playing within a more linear sense of time, Bishop responds simply, "Exactly the same."

Still, the conceptual approach is undeniably abstract, as one would believe the musician's approach would be. Bishop describes it as, "Getting in touch with the syncopation, and then having that become the centerpiece of your thing."

"So that's it, there's all this other stuff that goes on in the world, and you talk about time changes, but actually, time doesn't change. We're still exactly in that 4/4. If I'm playing straight up rock and roll, or playing with Hal, I'm thinking basically the same. I'm hearing within that. It just happens that these are the notes I need to play at this moment in time. I'm hearing these drawn out phrases that are built on syncopation," he explains.

2020 has been a challenge for Bishop, like everyone else. Origin keeps ticking, with recordings continuing to be made, especially considering the absence of live performance during the world-wide pandemic. In January, pre-Covid 19, Bishop entered the studio with his band Scenes to record their seventh album for Origin. The group had largely recorded as a trio, with bassist Johnson and guitarist Stowell joining. However, Scenes began as a quartet, featuring tenor saxophonist Mandyck on the debut recording, Scenes (Origin, 2001). Mandyck returns for the new record, not only as a tenor player, but as the composer of five of eight tunes on the album. The session represents the first recording on tenor for Mandyck since that 2001 debut recording. A bout with cancer, and an abdominal injury followed that original session, taking Mandyck away from the saxophone. After a fourteen-year hiatus, he returned with the same original sound, born in the sonic vapor trail left behind by great tenorists such as John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon and Carter Jefferson. The eclectic nature of his playing, and of his compositions, add a strong presence within the vibe that Scenes has created in all its incarnations. It as well represents a reunion of friendship, with roots that date back to the early 80's. Still, there is an instinctive familiarity.

"Before Scenes came along and we did the first record, it was basically Rick (Mandyck), Jeff (Johnson) and I, and John (Stowell) came in for the first record. So that was the sound that we always envisioned ourselves being. We just went through 20 years of wandering off in some other directions, doing different things. I think that connection with Rick just feels like home," says Bishop.

While much can be said about all we have lost, and all that we desperately miss during these challenging times, the imperative of the artist nonetheless remains the same. There is conceivably less to work with, yet within that conception is the work on projects put aside during busier times. Bishop continues to move forward with Origin, a newly created immersive, interactive virtual reality play-along program named Reality Book, and an eye on the future, a return to previous norms. Ballard Jazz Festival 2021 looms on the horizon, performance dates with a number of artists remain on the calendar. Origin remains engaged in its mission as musicians figure out new ways to record, new ways to stay afloat, in turbulent waters.

Memories of the way the jazz life once was, and shall be again, lurk prominently in the minds and souls of jazz artists around the world. Here in Seattle, intimate nights at clubs like Tula's, Jazz Alley, and the Royal Room remain firmly embedded in the collective consciousness of the jazz community. I recall as if it were yesterday, seated with legendary pianist Overton Berry at Tula's, taking in a quartet that included Bishop on drums. The 85-year-old veteran Berry turned to me with a broad smile on his face, slowly shook his head and said, "Man, that John Bishop-when he plays, it's like a symphony!" We can only hope we are afforded the opportunity to witness that virtuosity sooner than later in fellowship with the greater jazz community.

Photo Credit: Lisa Hagen Glynn

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