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Michael Bisio: Stepping Into the Limelight

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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.

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