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Michael Bisio: In His Own Words

Michael Bisio: In His Own Words

Courtesy Byron Smith


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At its best this music is an environment, a healing environment that is all welcoming, all inclusive and alive.
If you happen to be a liner note geek you probably have noticed the name Michael Bisio mentioned frequently on album sleeves. Whether the author is the session leader or analyst, the general consensus is the bassist is the cornerstone upon which great music is built. His playing allows a fellow musician to access not only other player's innovations, but also their own wellspring of creativity and imagination. The bassist was quite busy in 2021 with an abundance of albums released and coming soon. They include: The Sweet Spot (Rogue Art, 2021) with Joe McPhee, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Juma Sultan, Joe McPhee & Strings (Rogue Art, 2022), a solo bass recording Inimitable (Mung Music, 2022), a new duo recording with Matthew Shipp, Flow Of Everything (Fundacja Słuchaj!, 2022), a quartet featuring Karl Berger, Mat Maneri, and Whit Dickey entitled MBefore (TAO Forms, 2022), the Matthew Shipp Trio with Newman Taylor Baker featured on World Construct (ESP Disk, 2022), a duo with Kirk Knuffke entitled For You I Don't Wanna' Go (NoBusiness, 2022), the Kirk Knuffke led trio date with Matthew Shipp entitled Gravity Without Airs (TAO Forms, 2022), and lastly a trio recording with Whit Dickey and Kirk Knuffke (TAO Forms, 2023). I sat down with Bisio (via Zoom) to get some insight into his life and process, and learn what's next for this great man.

All About Jazz: Thank you very much for sitting down to talk with us here at All About Jazz today. Michael, can you tell us where you are in the world?

Michael Bisio: I'm in Kingston, New York, the Hudson Valley. My wife, Dawn, and I live at The Lace Mill, it's an artist residence. The building was a working mill abandoned in the 1970's and now has fifty-five apartments, three galleries and a rehearsal studio.

AAJ: And how far are you from New York?

MB: If everything works perfectly, one and 3/4 hours. It rarely works perfectly.

AAJ: Now, I know you, you were born in New York, but spent considerable amount of time in Seattle. When you came back to the East Coast, were you in Brooklyn or Manhattan?

MB: I was in Seattle for 30 years. When I first came back I rented a room on the lower east side. I loved it but was paying more in rent than my mortgage had been in Seattle—even in those days Seattle wasn't cheap.

AAJ: So what year what year are we talking?

MB: 2007

AAJ: Brings to mind Matthew Shipp and William Parker, who are both stalwart lower Eastside folks. They've been there since the late '70s.

MB: Well, Matthew got there around '84. And, yeah, William, maybe mid '70s or earlier.

AAJ: Can you give us just a brief history of Michael Bisio and how you got into music?

MB: I was born in Troy, New York. My older brother, Paul, was a local Hendrix clone who needed a bassist. My parents got me a bass. I was probably 16, Paul would show me what I needed to know. That year, probably my junior year of high school, I went into the band room ... don't remember why. I saw a string bass kind of nailed to the wall. I asked the band director if I could try it—I took it down, couldn't do anything with it. He put me in touch with Dave Cobb, a legend in the Northeast. He had like 30 students. David lived on a farm in Nassau, NY. I would go out there for lessons, sometimes they would last all day. There were times I'd be so frustrated, mad at myself really, he'd send me to the barn to take the rust off of Model T parts or do some other chore. When I calmed down I could come back in to continue. Side Story: In those days you could "find" basses. During the first year I played we picked up a lot of instruments. We'd drive through New England, David could find a bass almost anywhere! Most needed repair but would eventually be passed on to students. The bass I played for 47 years we found in a furniture store in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It was a fantastic Italian instrument in an awful state of disrepair. Rapid Ruping aka High Speed Henry worked on it for two years before it was playable! Beyond "finding" basses David was a very inspirational teacher.

AAJ: So it was double bass from the start.

MB: Well, electric bass was some months here before that, but once I started playing string bass, the electric bass really fell by the wayside. It's not that I don't like it. People sometimes assume I don't. It's a wonderful instrument, just not what I do.

AAJ: Back in the day, the rock guitarist like your brother, and perhaps the extrovert drummers, they were the show pieces and unless you're Charles Mingus, you're not upfront.

MB: That's true. That was especially true with psychedelic rock music. The bassist was the least known, the least showy person, almost always. There are exceptions. John Entwistle (The Who) was fantastic, Jack Bruce of course, but Jack Bruce started life as a string bassist. Now that I've started, more keep coming to mind. I always loved hearing the bass lines on Deja Vu, CSNY but the bassist's name is escaping me.

AAJ: From the beginning, when and then how did you get into improvised music?

MB: Well, as a kid I did listen to a lot of blues, Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy, Papa John Creach, this music certainly had improvised elements. It left a deep impression. The rock music of the 60's into the early 70's had a sense of freedom and rebellion. Jimi Hendrix's music/bands certainly had a huge impact. John Mayall and the Blues Breakers incorporated the great Victor Gaskin along with an electric bassist. In concert, many bands would play long, "free" jams. This type of playing eventually led me to ... no, led my brother to bringing home things like Albert Ayler's New Grass (Impulse!, 1969), Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970), Blodwyn Pig's Ahead Rings Out (A&M, 1969) and yes, the Yoko Ono LP. I can still see the very blue album cover and hear my mother run screaming into her room to get away from it! I can't remember a time when I didn't know who Charles Mingus was. I think I saw The Ed Sullivan Show the night it was "raided by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Mingus, Archie Shepp, and Roy Haynes. To be honest I can't be sure if I really did or dreamt it or would simply like to believe I did. I did "meet" Charles Mingus once. He was performing with that fabulous quintet including Jack Walrath, George Adams, Don Pullen and Dannie Richmond at The Pioneer Banque in Seattle. On a break he was at the bar, I got my nerve up and introduced myself as a bassist. He looked at me, kind of grunted and turned away. I said "uh, thank you" and went back to my seat.

Improvising was always a part of my practice routine. It is how I warmed up and how I solved many problems on the instrument. At UW (university of Washington) I studied with the great bassist James Harnett, he always encouraged my creativity. While in school I was more drawn to contemporary groups and the composition students than performance majors. Although I would like to believe it is different now, it seemed performance majors were taught to hate any living composer, I didn't get it. While in school I met the great pianist/composer Bob Nell. We became life-long friends, we'd play music every day all day. Bob taught me more than maybe any other figure in my life and above all he allowed me to be me, still does. When I first started putting records out, if I couldn't have Bob I would just go piano-less. In school Bob and I joined Contemporary Group. It was there we fell under the wonderful influence of Bill (William O.) Smith and Stuart Dempster. Two giants of improvised and contemporary classical music. There were two distinct ensembles one was a jazz quintet, the other an improving ensemble steeped in avant-garde idioms/techniques.

These three giants left an indelible mark on my music. And at some point around 1980, I got a call from Barbara Donald, the great trumpet player, she took a real interest in me. That was also about the time Wynton (Marsalis) hit,—a very confusing time. After 1980 you had to choose if you were a jazz musician or a creative musician. How stupid is that! This led to a lot of stress for an artist as great as Barbara and many like her. Suddenly everyone felt a need to "conform" just to survive. But the real spirit always shined through. In rehearsal and on stage Barbara would cry out, ENERGY, ENERGY, ENERGY!!! Pushing the band higher and higher. Carter Jefferson was also in the band. He was a huge influence and mentor to me. He'd say, "Beez, man, 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, I'm a bad motherfucker." I remain grateful to all these artists who gave me direction and nurtured my spirit.

AAJ: That's interesting, I wanted to get into the neo-con wars of the 80s. But it seems to have affected you in a way that led you to your current life.

MB: It was certainly impactful. I love the tradition but the tradition is to move that tradition forward, not recreate it. My mentors always made a point of this. Carter (Jefferson) would tell me I needed to know what came before but just as importantly I needed to have my own voice. Words I still live by. In every sense Charlie Parker was free, imitators are not. That's not to discount the value of studying a particular style or artist to the limit, but that's for the practice room. To incorporate what resonates and use that material to develop your own voice creates an artist.

AAJ: So it was sort of a trade off, mental health and happiness against a cushy, maybe wealthier life.

MB: Who knows how much money would have been there, I don't.

AAJ: Did this direction in your creative life have a major role in your move east to New York?

MB: Starting in the 90s. I was coming back to New York more and more to work. And also, my son was at Columbia University, and my first marriage had dissolved. All those things kind of said, 'Okay, it's time now.' I was 50 when I came back, which is late, but it was just the right time for me. Matthew (Shipp) and I both had very early releases on Cadence Records and both had our first international releases on Silkheart. I had met Matthew in the early 90s. He had a solo performance in Seattle, and we just had this immediate kinship. When I moved to the Lower East Side we lived about two blocks apart. That was very fortunate for me. Matt was almost my first connection when I moved back and certainly has been the most profound.

AAJ: Back at the time of your move East, you made some significant connections and partnerships.

MB: Joe McPhee and Charles Gayle, both were connections I made on the West Coast. Joe and I had a friend in common, Craig Johnson. Craig and Joe go back to the late '60s. Joe has lived in the Hudson Valley since he was four years old. Craig was from an old established Seattle family. As a young painter, Craig moved to Paris, then to NYC, then to the Hudson Valley. He became the librarian at a monastery along the river. He and Joe met at a local establishment while discussing a certain pipe tobacco—they became friends for life. Craig was the first person to record Joe. Having no experience with recording, Craig bought a reel to reel and just started doing it! He even started a label, CJR records. Those first recordings were later licensed by Werner Uehlinger and became the beginnings of Hat Hut Records. This led to a decades long relationship between the three men. Craig moved back to Seattle around '89. That's where we met. He was a lovely man. To watch him listen to music... I mean, that's a funny way to put it but to watch him listen to music was one of the most beautiful things you could ever see. He was just so enraptured, enthralled and transported. We became good friends. Joe would come to visit and eventually a lunch happened and a concert was set up. There was a connection as soon as we started playing music that was simply out of this world ! Close to 30 years later we're still at it.

At the time the Knitting Factory first decided to get into artist management, touring etc. Charles Gayle was like their flagship. When they started sending tours to the West Coast, Michael Dorf asked Wayne Horvitz about a band for Charles and my name came up. Charles is a consummate musician/artist, it is a thrill to play music with him. Standing next to him was astounding, the entire history of the music would fly every 90 seconds ! We'd tour from Vancouver, BC to Long Beach CA. Usually a ten to twelve stops along the way. Great times, great music, great memories. The first tour was in '93 I think, the last maybe 2002 or '03.

AAJ: Speaking of McPhee, you have a recent recording out with Joe McPhee, is that correct?

MB: Yes, The Sweet Spot (Rogue Art, 2021) just came out mid-November. It was slated to come out in 2022, but Michel Dorbon was so happy with it he decided to move the release date up. It's been out a short time now. What a beautiful record. The Sweet Spot includes Joe, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and percussionist extraordinaire Juma Sultan. We all currently reside in the Hudson Valley. Juma most famously was Jimi Hendrix's percussionist at Woodstock. His spirit is deep, reaching back before Band of Gypsies and stretching into the future. We discovered we share a history with Barbara Donald and Sonny Simmons. Juma is the bassist on Manhattan Egos (Arhoolie Records, 1969). He moved from California to New York with Sonny and Barbara in the 60's. Interestingly we had never met before he moved into The Lace Mill. It does confirm how large and small, beautiful and magical, the universe of sound is.

AAJ: That recording and the ones we're talking about, were they all done in 2021?

MB: Yes, The Sweet Spot (Rogue Art, 2021) was recorded in January. Joe McPhee & Strings (Rogue Art, 2022) was recorded last October. It will be released mid to late 2022. The plan for Joe McPhee & Strings was originally intended to be a live recording and a studio date. About two hours before the concert, violist Mat Maneri called to say he had hurt his back and was doubtful he could make the concert. An hour later he was in so much pain he needed to bow out. Although we went ahead with the concert it will not be part of the release. On October 21, 2021 we went into Park West Studios. Although Mat's back was still tender he played to that incredible, mystical level he's known for. The entire document was beautifully captured by engineer Jim Clouse and under Joe's direction is simply a masterpiece.

AAJ: We've talked about those two, I understand there's more music that we can expect in 2022.

MB: 2021 was really busy for recording. There's a new solo I'm very excited about, Inimitable (Mung Music, 2022). Inimitable was actually recorded February 22, 2020 just prior to lockdown. That first year was very tough and the recording lay idle. More than a year later I heard an NPR special about Sunjae Lee, musician, artist and champion of improvised music in South Korea. The music I heard was very beautiful. My wife, Dawn, is Korean and we just started planning a trip there. I reached out to Sunjae, we talked about music and our trip. He was familiar with my music and the solo seemed a perfect fit for his label. We were going to travel to Seoul in January 2022—my wife would investigate her roots and I would have the opportunity to create music with some wonderful artists. Unfortunately due to quarantine issues, the trip is postponed, but certainly is a bright spot on the horizon.

AAJ: Do you think this has something to do with our pandemic years? That explains the quantity of music coming out?

MB: I don't know what loosened up, but something happened. Maybe our souls were weary from the isolation. It was finally enough, too much, we needed to create connection. Music is a powerful connector. So, yes I do think that's a big part of it.

AAJ: This kind of suggests to me, with this plethora of music and if we're talking about the neocon wars, this is the answer to who came out victorious.

MB: One can hope, I do hear many young artists in recent years who are indeed moving the tradition forward in the most brilliant manner.

AAJ: I understand you also scheduling a solo bass tour in 2022.

MB: Yeah, I'm hoping to, in early summer, not sure of the scope yet. I actually haven't gotten too much together. I have a commitment in DC. And that's about as far as I've gotten, but I really have to get on that. My wife and I are going to rent a car and hit the road.

AAJ: Have you done previous solo tours?

MB: I've done quite a few solo performances and I've traveled to other places to do them, but they've all been one-offs except in the 90s, I had a grant to do about a dozen solo concerts in the Northwest. In the real sense of touring (road dog) this will be my first.

AAJ: Your relationships with other artists are admirable. You've formed these unique bonds. For many listeners. if you think of Matthew Shipp, you think of Michael Bisio. There are other artists also, but maybe we can start with Matt. Can you give us a little history and tell us something about your chemistry?

MB: Matthew is an artist at the very highest level and a person beyond reproach. A cool dude, he's smart, he's funny, he's kind, everything anyone should want to be. Our friendship is a blessing I do not take lightly. As I said, we used to live by each other, we'd meet for coffee and talk music, business, life. The first concert we did was at The Kitchen. It was Matt's "Sacred Geometry" for piano, viola, cello and bass. The first record we made together was called The Postmodern Jazz Quartet, (unreleased) maybe 2007 or '08, which included Matt, me, Khan Jamal and Michael T.A. Thompson. This record was later given to DJ Spooky, who processed a cut.

AAJ Note: DJ Spooky—The Secret Song (Thirsty Ear, 2009). The following year, Scanner with The Post Modern Jazz Quartet Blink of an Eye (Thirsty Ear, 2010) was released. This was the entire set, processed.

MB: Matthew and I have similar aesthetic and similar history. History as in how we came to this music and the influences that inform our choices. We also find the same things funny and can travel easily together, a really big plus. In 2009, Matthew had a gig in Sardinia, he needed a bassist and asked me to go. At the end of the gig, he said, "Do you want to be in my trio?"—I said of course I do! And we've been hanging ever since. We've been to a lot of places in the world, had a lot of fun, and made a lot of great music. I'm pretty old school and from time to time can get a little um...excessive. Ask Matthew about me leaving an enormous tip for hotel housekeeping in Saalfelden. I've said too much.

AAJ: I suspect that you don't drink as much coffee as he does.

MB: (laughing) I don't. I used to but actually had no caffeine at all for a couple years. Lately I've been drinking espresso. My wife bought me an espresso maker for our 5th anniversary. I've been enjoying it, but only in the morning. Matthew is pretty much an all day everyday guy.

AAJ: So Matt seems to be a pretty regimented woodshed guy, practice, practice, practice.

MB: We share that as well. Matt walks from the Lower East Side up to W 46th to practice. I am lucky to be able to practice in my apartment on my own instruments. We both still practice daily. Some people might wonder why. I like Pablo Casal's answer best, "Because I think I'm making progress." He was 90 years old at the time.

AAJ: The relationship you have with with Matt is a different than the one you have with Tani Tabbal.

MB: Tani, like Matthew, is a consummate musician and artist. He has this incredible memory. He can hear something once, know everything about it and never forget it! I don't know anyone else with that kind of musical memory. Of course his history is deep, very deep. His time always feels so good and his compositional concepts are all-inclusive. It's very similar to Matthew in that there's a direction pointed, a concept, a line, and then you do what you do. This is the blueprint for most of the best music I've ever made. Tani, and I first played in Joe Giardullo's Shadow & Light band. We recorded on 9/11 which was an extremely heavy experience and a poignant document. That band was, however, short-lived and I always felt like Tani and I just scratched the surface of what might be possible. In 2015, he asked me to join his trio with alto wizard Adam Siegel. I was thrilled, still am.

AAJ: When we talk about Matt and Tani and the other two, of course, Joe McPhee and Brian Groder, would we call them artists? We call musicians "artists," but these folks are indeed artists of the highest order.

MB: Matt, Tani, Joe and Brian are phenomenal artists, phenomenal musicians and phenomenal human beings. With Joe you don't rehearse in a traditional sense. He might talk about a direction, an inspiration or read a poem. Then you have dinner, maybe a scotch and go play. Although Brian and I played a bit before BG3, I feel our relationship/friendship started when he asked me to join the trio. Brian sent me charts. After checking them out I said, "Oh, you want somebody else" he said, "No, I don't." I said, "No, you want somebody else." He said, "No, I want you to do it." His sense of harmony and form on paper seemed complex to my alleged mind, four strings, no frets. In general I don't like to use charts on the bandstand because I am too glued to them. Trying to keep his harmonies/forms in my head with no chordal instrument seemed a monumental a task without a six-night a week gig. At this time I was apartment sitting in Bay Ridge. Brian had just moved to Bay Ridge from Manhattan, just a few blocks from me. The conversation continued and we began to get together regularly to play his music. Eventually we happened upon an approach somewhat akin to harmolodics ... eureka. The addition of the extraordinary Jay Rosen on drums was the icing on this remarkable multi-layered cake.

AAJ: With regard to these new releases that are coming out in 2022, I suspect you're writing more more compositions.

MB: In recent years, I would call my compositional style conceptual. There is an inspiration and enough information to point a direction that allows for the creative input of each artist, every performance. For example "r. henri" (from the album The Art Spirit (ESP Disk, 2021) takes its inspiration from the collected writings of American painter/teacher/activist Robert Henri. The written material succinctly sets the stage, creating an environment. Melody and harmonic implications reference mood. The input of each artist and the collective consciousness of the ensemble create expression and form. Although it is a bit of an oxymoron, I compose for improvisers. In a concert setting, the audience, in an active listening sense, becomes integral to the creative direction.

AAJ: So would I be correct to state that you are building a skeleton and then the improvisers are filling in muscle and organs and interiors within the structure that you've organized?

MB: Exactly, and it is also worth considering that 99% percent of the time, I am one of those improvisers.

AAJ: I know you have students. How is it that you can take a young talented musician who is very comfortable reading music and playing a score and then they get your system. How do you introduce them to that?

MB: Reading music is a skill, a valuable skill, but it's not art and certainly has the potential to become a road block to connecting with your improvisational self. The objective is to get them off the page and into the sound. Students of music have wildly varied levels and areas of what people might consider natural talent. If someone is willing to build on their gifts and works smart enough to acquire the level of communication they need, want, or desire it becomes natural. The best thing I can teach anyone is how to teach themself. Being able to identify and address your needs is what it's all about. There certainly are building blocks however. These need to be worked, drilled, studied, whatever it takes, until they are part of you. Beyond that I believe process is key. I introduce students to my process and help them discover their own.

Also, everyone enters this music at a particular point in its history and it can take time to appreciate styles that are older, or in my case newer. I do encourage students to reach back in time to the source that led to their source, to discover the heroes of their heroes. Interestingly enough the pandemic has brought me back to the written page. Pre-pandemic my teaching style was predominately modeling and by ear. Remote lessons had a huge impact. Trying to play something together seemed all but impossible. I ultimately reverted to writing and emailing exercises. I was surprised at the positive response and value. So much so, I am now writing a book. It may take years, conceptually it is still about the process not the page yet it will be on a page. Yikes!

AAJ: What you're talking about, it sounds almost Buddhist in nature, in that you have to learn the rules, the maneuvers, and then forget them all to improvise

MB: Study and practice allow me to trust my ability to step into the flow, to be open and present. Albert Einstein said "The most beautiful thing you can experience is the mysterious." I'm always searching for the place where intuition meets mystery. There are many levels.

AAJ: What I'm taking from our discussion today is that there is a magnetism in your sound that attracts and is attracted by these other artists that we've talked about today. You basically share the same philosophy of music.

MB: Magnetism is an interesting choice of words. I'm not sure I've thought about it in terms of magnetism but there certainly is an attraction. The idea of an exchange works for me. The beauty of that exchange is available to everyone. Its power is multiplied well beyond the sum of its parts. Improvised music is a profound and intimate gift, it is the ability to connect. People often talk about it as a language, it certainly is, but it is so much more. At its best this music is an environment, a healing environment that is all welcoming, all inclusive and alive.

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