Michael Bisio: Undulations Liner notes for Undulations (OmniTone 15001)

Music comes and goes from our consciousness.  For some, it's more conscious than unconscious, but waxes and wanes like styles and tastes do.  The first unconscious "hearers" of nature's music —from the great, codifying European symphonists to the 20th century classical and jazz deconstructionists —were all broaching the elusive euphony that is music.

Michael Bisio knows all about the flow of music.  Says the bassist, "I think that music is in the air.  You have to be able to tap into that.  When you do that, it translates to an audience, and they say 'maybe I'll listen to this again.'  It feels good."  That good feeling comes from a wellspring of passion nurtured by early mentors who not only stressed the music, but who drew creative energy from that fountainhead.

"One of the first people who took an interest in me was Barbara Donald, who's an unbelievable trumpet player who was married to Sonny Simmons," recalls Michael.  "Her song was energy, energy, energy —that was her whole thing all the time, and without me knowing it, I was almost too inexperienced to recognize what she was giving me at that time.... Carter Jefferson was in that band, and they'd all be on me all the time about energy, energy, energy.  They just loved to play; I'd drive down to Olympia, and we'd play for about eight hours in her basement."

"I've been fortunate to have people in my life who have always wanted to play music for music's sake.  Joe McPhee is the ultimate of that.  You stand next to him playing, and you can't believe the beauty of it.  It's like I'm just a listener," bubbles Michael.  Between Donald and McPhee has run an impressive list of adventurous musicians including Wayne Horvitz, Andrew Hill, Sonny Simmons, John Tchicai, Vinny Golia, Jack Walrath, Van Manakas, Greg Bendian, Charles Gayle and Marilyn Crispell.

Many of those collaborations have occurred since Michael, a native of Troy, New York, relocated to Seattle in 1976 to earn a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Washington and to study under Seattle Symphony Orchestra bassist James Harnett.  At UW, Michael played jazz, classical and new music, the latter with the Contemporary Group (co-led by Dave Brubeck's clarinetist Bill Smith and trombonist Stuart Dempster).

Not bad for a guy who started playing bass at age 17 because his older, "local rock star" brother needed a bass player and showed Michael where to put his fingers on the instrument.  That led to Michael's discovery of the string bass in his senior year of high school, and his first teacher, David Cobb.

"David was an amazing man, and he instilled the love of learning about the instrument in me.  That's what started it.  We'd have lessons that lasted all day.  He lived out on this farm, and I'd get really frustrated with myself, and it would come out as anger, of course, at that age.  He used to rebuild Model T's, and he'd make me go pull the rust off them and stuff.  I could come back in when I'd calmed down," Michael reminisces.

Cobb's Zen-like approach and the wisdom of SSO bassist Harnett, whom Michael cites as his reason for moving to Seattle, combined to teach him a lot more than how to play the double bass.  Says Michael, "they both instilled in me that the best thing they could ever teach me was how to teach myself.... Those two guys, whom I consider my teachers, really are responsible for my drive to do what I can do and to love what I do."

A passionate drive and soulfulness flows through Michael's prodigious output.  He has released critically acclaimed albums with his quartet and quintet on respectively the Silkheart and Cadence labels.  He has performed nationally and internationally at the Earshot World Jazz Festival, the du Maurier Jazz Festival, throughout Italy, Switzerland and France, and regularly in New York.  He has received grants from the Artist Trust and the Jack Straw Foundation, and his talents have earned him two Golden Ear awards.  Besides his quartet, quintet and collaborative projects, Michael is currently involved in Diedre Murray's opera "Running Man."

Michael's creative impulse is also highly evident in his compositions, which he considers launching pads.  "As a composer I just want to create springboards for the people to do whatever they want," he clarifies.  "I'm a great believer in spontaneous composition, which is, in my mind, performing.  But it doesn't lessen the compositional factor of it." Feeling and color and spirit mesh to make a sum much greater than the parts, imbuing Michael's compositions with palpability and focus. 

Continues Michael, "An architect can design a building, it's beautiful, it's this and that, and it has a portion of that architect in it.  But you fill that building with people and all their spirits, and you have something that the architect could not have imagined."  For example, he wrote "Undulation Song" as an architecture for drummers.  "I wanted something where they'd just undulate.... It's just a chordal movement by step, and it's kind of in 5/4 time, but it's pretty rubato also.  It's basically a platform for the drummer to do whatever he wants to do."

On "Grimes, Henry Grimes," the music springs forth from respect and honor.  "It's simply a tribute to someone who inspired me forever and ever."  Grimes, like the looming, late David Izenzon (to whom Michael's playing has also been compared) "put the bass in a position where it was still a bass, and yet as forward-thinking as it could possibly be," according to Michael.  "It seemed like after that, people wanted to make the bass sound like a guitar, or like a horn, or something other than a bass, and I have a great deal of respect for the function of the instrument."

Michael demonstrates his great respect for the tradition and past masters of the music in everything he does, and that esteem extends to his colleagues on this recording.  "These guys, if I could pick anybody, I'd pick them," he acknowledges.  To him, they are "geniuses," all caught up in the ebb and flow of tradition and innovation that is true jazz.

"I love how everybody just said what they wanted when they wanted.  That to me is the epitome.... To be able to create that kind of environment where people feel they can comment, they can join, I think that's very important —then you have a band."

—Frank Tafuri

[Read complete interview with Michael Bisio.]

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