Michael Bisio

We think of great jazz bass players like Charles Mingus or Charlie Haden. They have a unique approach and distinctive sounds. When you mention Michael Bisio, bassist, composer, leader, that’s what you get. Michael is already known by the critics. In Seattle (Silkheart), his second album as a leader made the Village Voice’s “Best Jazz Records” list. It also was critic Kevin Whitehead’s Top 10 for National Public Radio in 1988. In Seattle was described by the Penguin Guide to Jazz as an “exemplary example of contemporary jazz being created far from the major American centers.” Paul de Barros in Jackson Street After Hours’ Northwest regional jazz history named Bisio one of the most important heirs to Seattle’s rich, but innovative, tradition. Bisio is a musician first and foremost. “It took me a while to figure it out,” admits the articulate, emotionally intense bassist who moved to Seattle from Troy, New York in 1976. It’s one thing being a professional musician. That’s what I am. Since college, I have made my living performing this music. It’s another to consider yourself a professional artist. You make different decisions.” Michael has taken the time to create his music as a leader, composer and musician. While others may have been focusing on getting to the next casual gig, it has allowed him to take that time. Although it was a difficult task, the passion for purity and attention to detail has paid off. Over the past ten years, Bisio recorded and played with Bob Nell and Wayne Horvitz as well as Sonny Simmons and Bern Nix. Gayle has accompanied him twice across the country, and Bisio has toured the West Coast in his own band. These noted leaders found in Bisio a bold, honest style that Garcia Lorca called “duende”, which is best translated as “soul” or “heart”. His sound is reminiscent of Charlie Haden’s reverent, warm melodicism. He uses gut strings to play his bass and no electronic mediation. Bisio is not afraid to venture “out” into the “new thing” textural energy zones created by 1960’s jazzers. His music is characterized by a quiet, bluesy sound and the sweet-and-sour tones that Charles Mingus adored as a composer. Art Lange, an ex-Down Beat editor, commented on Michael’s performance at the 1994 Du Maurier Jazz Festival: “Bisio’s wailing arcobas was reminiscent David Izenzon and Ornette Coleman.” It was a smart decision. Izenzon is right. Bisio, like Izenzon was a wild, wooly guy with an edge but also has a solid musical foundation. Bisio started his career behind the big violin of David Cobb, Professor of Bass at State University of New York at Albany. He won scholarships to the Congress of Strings, Chautauqua Institute of Fine Arts and then earned a Bachelor of Music degree at the University of Washington in 1979. Here he studied with James Harnett, bass player of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Bisio was a UW student and played jazz, classical and new music. The latter was with the Contemporary Group, which was co-led William O. Smith (aka Bill Smith), clarinetist and Dave Brubeck’s trombonist, Stuart Dempster. Bisio is a fine and sensitive reader like Wynton Marsalis. He toured and subbed with the Northwest Chamber Orchestra and Seattle Symphony for many years. It was in the 1980’s that Michael began making his mark in jazz, as a part of a nexus of open-eared, soulful, deep-in-the-tradition Northwest jazzers that includes Bob Nell, Barbara Donald, Jack Walrath, and Bert Wilson. Donald, the legendary trumpet player who recorded with Sonny Simmons in the 1960’s, first noticed Bisio. He used him on six years of gigs and on her 1983 comeback record, The Past and Tomorrow (Cadence). Bisio formed his own quintet, with Montana-based pianist Bob Nell and saxophonist Rick Mandyck. He also arranged a band with drummer John Bishop, Rick Mandyck and trumpeter Ron Soderstrom. They released Ours (CT Records) in 1983. Bob Rusch, Cadence editor, chose Ours to be Editor’s Choice of the year. Alan Bargebuhr, the magazine interviewer, wrote that “I was not prepared for the power and beauty” of the disc. Paul de Barros stated, “This album is the best to come out Seattle in years – tough, committed Jazz, executed with authority and assurance.” Michael’s popularity grew throughout the Northwest and he was appointed Artist in Residence by Washington State Arts Commission. He was also recruited to perform in the first ever concert series presented by Seattle’s well-known non-profit, Earshot jazz. Bisio started rehearsing a pianistless quartet with Mandyck and Soderstrom in 1986. In Seattle, Bisio’s 1987 CD was released on the Swedish Silkheart record label. This album established Bisio as an international composer and musician who could bridge the gap between the “inside” world and the “outside”. In Seattle was a huge success. It was selected by Lee Jeske as a Jazz Feature for Cash Box. Cadence, Coda, and Village Voice also praised it highly. Bisio was starting to be noticed. Soon after, Bisio’s quartet disbanded in Seattle. This triggered a period full of great scuffling. The bassist took up classical gigs and began working with Buddy Catlett (ex-Count Basie bassist), who had established a group where he would play his original reed instruments. Bisio was also a member of a fine piano trio, led by Wayne Horvitz (who had just moved from New York to Seattle) and Horvitz’s New York Composer’s Orchestra West. The 1990 highlight was a commissioned performance of the International Creative Music Orchestra at Seattle’s Earshot jazz festival, which included Horvitz, Andrew Cyrille and Larry Ochs as well as other musicians from all over the globe. In 1993, Charles Gayle, a fiercely improvising reedman, called and organized a West Coast tour of his Charles Gayle Trio. The subsequent crisscross of the United States was a huge success. Michael Bisio performed in Seattle in 1994 with Bern Nix, Jim Nolet, and Rob Blakeslee at the Earshot International Jazz Festival. He also formed a new group with Northwest musicians Bob Nell (piano), Eyvind Kang (violin), Rob Blakeslee, and Ed Pias (drums); as well as with Phil Haynes, a New York drummer, on a variety gigs at du Maurier Jazz Festival backing up Marilyn Crispell and John Tchicai, Glenna, Glenna Powrie and Charles Gayle and Glenna Powrie and Glenna, Glenna and Glenna and Glenna and Glenna Powrie and Glenna and Glenna and Glenna and Glenna and Glenna and Glenna and Glenna and Glenna and other. John Corbett (writing for Wire magazine) and Kevin Whitehead (reviewing for Coda) praised Bisio’s versatility and sensitivity. Artist Trust in Washington awarded Bisio a GAP grant and the Jack Straw Foundation gave him an Artist Support Program award. Michael was invited by the Washington Square Church to perform at a concert that celebrated Albert Ayler’s 60th Birthday on September 20, 1996. Deidre Murray, Joe McPhee and Jim Nolet were his quartet. Sunny Murray was there as a finale along with Joseph Jarman and Amiri Baraka. Earshot Jazz presented a 1996 Golden Ear Award to Michael for Best Northwest Jazz Recording, for his CD Covert Choreography. The quintet also performed at the du Maurier Jazz Festival that year to great reviews. 1997 saw Michael return to the du Maurier Jazz Festival, this time as a duo with Eyvind Kang, violinist. Phillip McNally wrote in Earshot Jazz that the string duo “enchanted a packed audience with an endless stream melody and improvisations.” Michael traveled the east coast in July 1997 with Joe McPhee, jazz legend. The duo record for CIMP, Finger Wigglers, was the reason this trip was so inspiring and critically acclaimed. Later that year, a Seattle concert would win the 1997 Golden Ear Award as Concert of the Year and be included in Paul DeBarros’ “Jazz Inside Out : Best Sounds of 1997” article for The Seattle Times. Michael and Joe recorded their second duo CD for CIMP in July 1998. Zebulon was first released in 1999. Michael received a GAP grant from Artist Trust to record with Eyvind Kang. Michael Bisio continues touring and composing music for solo, duo and trio. Bisio is one of many bassists who have thrived in the Northwest. Freddy Schreiber and Buddy Catlett are just a few others. Bisio lives up to all expectations. From www.omnitone.com

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