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Michael Bisio: Stepping Into the Limelight

In some perverse way the term free jazz has been used for both charlatan and genius practitioners. There is obviously an immense difference. Why the same word?
Bassist Michael Bisio has become an increasingly visual and aural presence on the jazz/improvisation scene in the time since he moved from the west coast to New York. Yet he has been a significant contributor in jazz circles for years, and success was no overnight thing. Among other ongoing associations, Bisio is currently the bassist in pianist Matthew Shipp's trio and Tomas Ulrich's Cargo Cult. Bisio also leads his own group. His discography is extensive and covers much ground.

All About Jazz: What made you take up the bass?

Michael Bisio: I first played electric bass. My older brother was the local Jimi Hendrix clone. He was largely responsible for my initial involvement with music. I also played music with some friends in high school. One day I walked into the band room. There was a string bass hanging on the wall. The director, Eugene Cane, allowed me to try it, then asked me to join the concert and jazz bands. (I remember playing the "Theme from Shaft" and thinking I was very cool.) He gave me my first theory/composition lessons and put me in touch with David Cobb. David is a legend in the Northeast; I could not have asked for a better start or foundation on the instrument. "Don't worry, someday it will all come together" was David's mantra, as I pursued the whirlwind and sometimes overwhelming pace he set. In 1976, I moved to Seattle to study with James Harnett, then principal bass with the Seattle Symphony. Jim's ability to dissect and solve problems on the instrument was astounding and always in the service of music. Bassists Rufus Reid and Glenn Moore also cite his influence.

AAJ: I understand you also were involved with Bill Smith and Stuart Dempster during this time. Could you talk a bit about what that was about?

MB: Actually, while studying with Jim, at the University of Washington, I also worked and studied with Bill and Stuart. At this time I also bonded with fellow student Bob Nell. So there were three people who had a major impact on me there. Bill, of course, is widely known as a member of Dave Brubeck's original octet and for his own groundbreaking recording Folk Jazz (OJC, 1961). Stuart is a highly regarded modern trombonist, musical mystic and founding member of the Deep Listening band. Together, they led Contemporary Group, dedicated to the performance of avant-garde music with a large improvisational content. The experience of being involved in their processes and concepts remains an invaluable one to me. During this time, I also studied arranging and composition with Bill. By the '90s, I was working with both in varied situations, from duos to large ensembles, including Bill's 70th birthday trio tour. Stuart and I were both members of Joe McPhee's Quintet which produced the Common Threads concert / CD (Deep Listening, 1995). The third person was the great pianist/composer Bob Nell. His knowledge, spirit and friendship have been a source of inspiration for more than 35 years.

AAJ: I understand that the great bassist Buddy Catlett was another important influence on your musical life from those years.

MB: For a dozen years I lived in the same neighborhood as Buddy. He is a musical giant and a very generous spirit. A very short list of his musical associations include Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Quincy Jones. He was on Quincy Jones' first European tour. He was always open to having me drop by in the afternoon to play music. If he was driving by and saw me practicing through the window, he'd stop, come in, and we'd play, talk about music, hang out. Just as importantly he always had great stories, and I love a good story. He knew, made music with, and could talk about almost every one of my heroes (including himself). It was always a positive and enlightening experience to be in his company. We gigged as a bass duo in Seattle, at Brad Inserra's Swingside Cafe, a gourmet establishment with a strong commitment to the sound arts. I also had the honor of playing bass for Buddy when he returned to his first instruments, saxophones and clarinet. Verna Silvers was the wonderful pianist on those dates, a protégé of Mary Lou Williams. Being around Buddy was always a joy, the learning curve was extremely high and everything always presented with love.

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'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 for its melodies and interplay. The other was Charles Mingus' 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 and Elvin Jones, among many others). Carter was a most positive and inspirational person. It was always an uplifting experience to be in his presence.

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.

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, 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 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, Michael Vlatkovich, and Bert Wilson, to name a few, as well as the circles of artists associated with each.

By the early '90s I was occasionally making forays to the east coast for various small Hits, and in 1993 made my first west coast tour with Charles Gayle. In Seattle, during this time, I met a remarkable man, Craig Johnson. Craig loves this music, to watch Craig listen is to know why you play. Not coincidentally Craig is also the first person to have recorded Joe McPhee. Craig was gracious enough to arrange an introduction which led to a 1995 Earshot concert featuring Joe, Stuart and Loren Dempster, Eyvind Kang and myself—a landmark recording released on the Deep Listening label as Common Threads (DRAM, 1995). For me, it was the beginning of a truly inspiring, profound and productive period. To say Joe has been a major influence is an understatement. In 1996, Bob Rusch invited us to record duo; Finger Wigglers (CIMP, 1997) was the result. On the strength of this release, we toured the mid-Atlantic and Southern states in 1997. While driving through one of the Carolinas we saw a sign that read: "Zebulon 30 Miles." Unaware of any other implications it seemed a destination in space and was the inspiration for our second duo CD of the same name. Zebulon (CIMP) was released in 1999. Since this time I have had the honor of recording with Joe more than a dozen times and more importantly, have had many opportunities to share his musical vision.

Michael Bisio (left) with Stephen Gauci (right)

The dawn of the 21st century saw more opportunities in the east and beyond. I was invited to play Diedre Murray's chamber jazz opera, Running Man, for the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lennox, MA, and traveled through France with Joe McPhee and the World Bass Quartet, a continuation of Joe's commitment to the music and spirit of Albert Ayler. On 9/11/2001, I had the unique and emotionally rife experience of recording music not four hours after the planes crashed into the World Trade Center. The Joe Giardullo 4tet was scheduled to record that day after a short NE tour. Band members included Joe Giardullo, Joe McPhee, Tani Tabal and me. We met at exit 19 of the New York State Throughway, and headed to the studio in almost complete silence. Joe G. wisely abandoned his plan for the day, instead he asked us to play what was in the air. The results can be heard on the frighteningly beautiful Shadow and Light (Drimala, 2002).

For the next couple of years, a lot of my musical activity on the east coast centered on Joe Giardullo's Quartet and Joe McPhee's Bluette. The Bluette was a two-bass, two- wind unit with Dominic Duval, myself, Joe G. and, of course, Joe McPhee. During this period, there were concerts at the Guelph Jazz Fest, Vision Festival, Merkin Hall and others. Both of these ensembles are well documented through the efforts of Drimala and CIMP.

Back on the west coast, I continued my collaborations with some wonderful artists like Michael Vlatkovich, Rob Blakeslee, Wally Shoup, Greg Campbell and Bob Nell. There are probably a dozen recordings from this period on various labels including the Bob Nell Trio's Soft and Bronze (Plechmo, 2004) and John Heward's Let Them Pass (Drimalam 2004).There were also singular and beautiful collaborations with Oluymei Thomas, Charles Gayle, and Saadet Turkoz, among others. In 2003 I was awarded an Artist Trust Fellowship; late August, 2005, I made the move east.

AAJ: And at this point your own group became a large part of your focus?

MB: Yes. My current quartet—with Jay Rosen, Avram Fefer, and Stephen Gauci—was formed in January 2005. Bob Rusch arranged a CIMP date for January 17 and 18. The high temperature in North Country reached negative 14 degrees Fahrenheit. The result, Connections (CIMP, 2005), aptly named by Bob Rusch, is a very special record. The degree of communication and commitment to the music is astounding. This session set the standard for this band which has been exceeded by these wonderful artists every time we play. Five years and four CDs later it is still getting better. A side note: the improvisation, "Basic Deconstruction," ends with the sound of my bridge collapsing and sound-post falling. I believe this to be the only time this sound has been documented.

AAJ: Tell us a little about the other important associations you formed in this latest period.

MB: My time on the east coast, in particular New York City, has been filled with tremendous growth and collaborations that are the stuff of dreams. Special events that stand out include: Matthew Shipp's Sacred Geometry and PostModern Jazz Quartet, Michael Bisio Quartet at Vision Festival XII, Jason Kao Hwang's Spontaneous River, and William Parker's Prayer for Basses. I have had the opportunity to play duets with Henry Grimes, William Parker and Ken Filiano. Louie Belogenis and I have performed trio with Sunny Murray and Rashied Ali (a trio date with Sunny Murray will be out on Porter records soon). Louie and I have a duo recording (currently shopping) that is the result of being neighbors for the better part of a year, playing music at least weekly, and developing a unique language. Way, way cool. Tomas Ulrich's Cargo Cult is an astounding ensemble (cello, guitar, bass) covering a very wide spectrum of music at a very high level. I have formed relationships with icons like Karl Berger, Warren Smith and Connie Crothers. Upstate collaborators include the great pianists David Arner and Bob Gluck, vocalist Julia Donnaruma, guitarist George Muscatello, and performance artist Nicole Peyrafitte (now in Brooklyn), as well as Deep Listening founder Pauline Oliveros. Beginning fall term 2009, I have held the position of Instructor of Bass at Bennington College.

About a year ago, Matthew Shipp asked me to join his trio, which includes the great Whit Dickey. There is not a doubt in my mind that this is the finest piano trio in creative music today. Matt's leadership generates a joy every time we play that is palpable and sublime. The first documentation of the trio, our second concert, is included in a live double-CD set of Matthew's work. The Art Of the Improviser (Thirsty Ear, 2011), which has just been released. On January 13 [2011], we played at Iridium in NYC. The beginning of February marked a European tour and there are dates throughout the northeastern United States in March.

I have just completed my first solo effort, Travel Music (Self Produced, 2011). This is a very exciting project for me and the first I hav e decided to oversee every aspect of its production. It was recorded beautifully by Ted Orr at Sertso Studios in Woodstock, NY during two sessions one month apart. The reaction of friends who have heard it is very encouraging. It is now available.

AAJ: I know you don't really like the term "free," as applied to your music. Could you tell us what bothers you about the word, and how the music is best described?

MB: You are right. I don't like the term in relation to my music. There is of course nothing wrong with the word itself. The problem for me is it has become a term used to marginalize the music and the artists.

In some perverse way, the term has been used for both charlatan and genius practitioners. There is obviously an immense difference. Why the same word? To me free, at its best, implies the largest amount of responsibility, because there is really only freedom of choice. An artist needs as large a vocabulary as possible to be able to express as exactly as possible what is in his or her heart, mind, spirit and body.

AAJ: What do you see happening in the music as it evolves? Where do you see the music going in the next 20 years?

MB: Music, for me ,is about the act of creation, the positive sounds, energy, feeling and healing released at the point of departure. I don't have an idea about how music will evolve. But I am pretty comfortable being part of the evolution of the revolution in music. No matter where it goes, I believe these attributes will always be at the center for me.

Selected Discography

Michael Bisio, Travel Music (MJB, 2011)

Bob Gluck, Returning (FMR, 2011)

Matthew Shipp, The Art of the Improviser (Thirsty Ear, 2011)

Thomas Ulrich's Cargo Cult, Discoveries (CIMP, 2011)

SKM, Three (Clean Feed, 2010)

Connie Crothers & Michael Bisio, Session at 475 Kent (Mutable Music, 2010)

Thomas Ulrich's Cargo Cult, Lonely House (CIMP, 2010)

David Arner, Porgy and Bess, Act One, Act Two (Cadence 2009, 2010)

Joe McPhee, Angels, Devils and Haints (Cadence, 2009)

Michael Bisio, Collar City Creatology (MJB, 2009)

Michael Bisio, Live at Vision Fest. XII (Not Two, 2009)

Thomas Ulrich's Cargo Cult, Thomas Ulrich's Cargo Cult (CIMP, 2009)

Michael Bisio, AM (CIMP, 2009)

Stephen Gauci, Basso Continuo (Clean Feed, 2008)

Michael Bisio, Connections (CIMP, 2005)

John Heward, Let Them Pass (Drimala, 2004)

Michael Bisio, Composance (Cadence, 2004)

Joe McPhee, Let Paul Robeson Sing (CIMP 2002)

Joe Giardullo, Shadow and Light (Drimala, 2002)

Michael Bisio, Undulations (Omnitone, 2000)

Joe McPhee & Michael Bisio, Zebulon (CIMP, 1999)

Joe McPhee & Michael Bisio, Finger Wigglers (CIMP, 1997)

Michael Bisio, Covert Choreography (Cadence, 1996)

Joe McPhee, Common Threads (Deep Listening, 1996)

Michael Bisio, In Seattle (Silkheart, 1988)

Photo Credits
Page 1: Frank Rubolino
Pages 2, 3: Ben Stimler
Page 4: John Sharpe
Page 5: Scott Friedlander
Page 6: Peter Gannushkin

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