Interview with Michael Bisio
(by Frank Tafuri)

Michael Bisio (c) Daniel Sheehan
Photo by Daniel Sheehan (April 2000)

Tafuri: I went out to your website, and prominently, you have the quote from Stan Dick about the only clear predecessor for your conception being David Izenzon —was that something Stan came up with on his own, or was David Izenzon an influence for you?

Bisio: Stan came up with it on his own. I never met him [Izenzon] or anything, but he's of course a looming figure.  I mean, he and Henry Grimes, and just a handful of others, really pushed the bass in the direction I wanted it to go.

Tafuri: Those are the monsters...

Bisio: Yeah, I just think they really put the bass in a position where it was still a bass, and yet as forward-thinking as it could possibly be.  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.  I also want it to be all it can be, but I want it to be a bass.  As opposed to being a guitar or a saxophone. If I wanted to play those instruments I would.

Tafuri: You actually started out playing bass, didn't you?

Bisio: Yeah, bass is my only instrument.

Tafuri: How did that come about?

Bisio: Well, my brother Paul was the local rock star; he was like a Hendrix clone, and he could play with his teeth, and behind his back, and all that stuff.  He needed a bass player, so he got me a bass, and showed me here to put my fingers ... then one day, my last year of high school, I walked into the band room and saw a bass on the wall, a string bass, and I said, let me try that.  The guy pulled it down, and I played it, and he hooked me up with David Cobb, who was my first teacher.  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 Ts, and he'd make me go pull the rust off them and stuff. I could come back in when I'd calmed down

Tafuri: Wow.  That's pretty Zen —that's like the Tibetan monks, telling people, "go wash your clothes, refocus."

Bisio: Both he and Jim Harnett, who was the reason I moved to Seattle, they both instilled in me that the best thing they could ever teach me was how to teach myself.  They were both guys who loved music, which in that kind of orchestral realm is somewhat rare, after you get so many years into it.  Most people end up kind of bitter.

Tafuri: I know what you're saying.

Bisio: 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.  They were guys who could play Beethoven's Fifth for the ten thousandth time, and still make music out of it.

Tafuri: As I look back, the great teachers that I had, and I'm not just talking about music, were the ones that taught you to be self-sufficient, how to do it yourself.

Bisio: Yeah.

Tafuri: Just to clarify, when your brother got you this bass, and taught you where to put your fingers, how old were you?

Bisio: Oh, I was seventeen by then.  I was a late starter, but like I said, I had people who encouraged me, and I would practice a lot. In the early days, I would practice all day and all night, sleep for a little while, and get up and do it again.

Tafuri: Were you into music before that?

Bisio: I loved to listen to music, but it was mostly music that everyone else was listening to.  I mean, I was probably a little more "alternative", but it was mostly rock music and art music. I did listen to some jazz.  One of my very earliest memories —and I don't even know whether this is true or if I made it up, 'cause I read the story later on —was when Mingus and Max Roach rushed the Ed Sullivan show.  I think I saw that.  In my mind, I know I saw that, and it was really something.  What they did, it really impressed me.  So as soon as I started playing, my interests did go toward improvised music, but I really learned how to play in a very traditional sense, orchestra things.

Tafuri: Boy, I'd like to see that too.  Mingus and Max on Ed Sullivan....

Bisio: You just have all this history that's there to inspire you.  You look at classical music, it's gone on for four or five hundred years; in jazz, or improvised music, you're basically looking at one century, and yet in that time period there's certainly as rich a history, and probably as many, if not more, periods in the music.

Tafuri: Right.

Bisio: We don't really have a historical perspective on that yet —we'll see how they break it up five hundred years from now....

Tafuri: Well, for sure jazz, I think by its very nature, has been sort of a revolutionary music and an evolutionary music.  My attitude, and the attitude of the label, is that if you're not putting out music that's changing, that's evolving, that's trying to find something new, you're not really representing the music.

Bisio: Exactly.

Tafuri: You have a little boutique, you're doing repertory kinds of things like a lot of the majors are doing.

Bisio: I transcribe stuff, and I always think —"what if this guy heard me play this —he'd kill me."  When I listen to stuff, the most important things are the inflections, and I try to capture the spirit.  I think that's way more important that the notes.  But what's happened, you know, is that jazz has become a school thing —schools, by their nature, have to be able to give a grade, and they have to test, and blah blah blah, so through no real fault of their own the things they stress are the least important things in music.  It gives kids a warped idea of what it's about, I think.

Tafuri: We've all heard players who are technically great who don't say anything; they don't play with any colors, don't speak to you —I know what you're saying.  Definitely, as traditional as your training has been, you've been in with quite a coterie of people, including John Tchicai and Vinny Golia and Charles Gayle and Marilyn Crispell, so many people. Where do you find the creative energy, the drive to involve yourself?

Bisio: God, how could you not?  I mean, how could you not want to be involved with those people?  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.  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.  If you listen to "Staying the Watch" on ESP, you're gonna hear trumpet playing you still never hear.  There was her, and 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.

Tafuri: That's great.

Bisio: The more people like that you're around, you realize, "If I'm gonna hang around, I gotta get it up."  It's an amazing thing, this kind of music, it's a glass house; if somebody throws a stone, it's done, but as long as everybody's in it, it's the most beautiful thing in the world.  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.

Tafuri: So you're operating on two different levels almost, when you're playing.

Bisio: Yeah.  And all those people have really taken the time to give me something that is vitally important, and hopefully I can pass that on in my music.  Like we were talking about a second ago, I never want to be a copy of that, but that spirit is all the good stuff about music.

Tafuri: Well, you sound like you still have a sort of awe, or wonderment about the music at the same time.

Bisio: Sure.  You have to have that, I think.  Everybody I associate with in that level has that.  You can't not have it, or it simply becomes a craft, and to me the craft is the least interesting part of what I do.  The craft is what I do at home.  I'm one of those guys who likes to practice —not everybody does, and not everybody needs to, but I like to, and I need to.  When I hit the stage, I just want to be prepared for all that good stuff to happen.  Everything else, I've done at home.

Tafuri: Having that kind of attitude, it seems, makes your music accessible to the listener.  You're an expert at what you do, but if you take the attitude that one is still a novice, constantly learning, then it makes what you do that much more accessible to your audience.

Bisio: I think so.  Especially in acoustic music, there's just a whole vibe that's created that people have lost —rock and roll was a big deal in killing that.  There's just this sense of well-being that electronics have not caught up to.  I really think that the metaphysical things about music, the healing power of music, I think it's all in the fact that you're trying to get beyond yourself.  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.

Tafuri: And you're having fun doing what you're doing.  There are so many people who are great players, but they don't have fun doing what they're doing, or they don't come off that way.  It seems like a struggle, or like the audience is an incidental bystander...

Bisio: Or a whipping post.

Tafuri: Sometimes that's the case, I think.  But you definitely have a lot of fun when you're playing, and I think that comes through.  It not only comes through in the performance, but I think the sense of humor shows up in your compositions as well.

Bisio: Yeah, you know, composing is to me just a vehicle for the people you're playing with.  In this music, I don't think that what someone plays is as important as who they are. I don't have a lot of ego as a composer; as a performer I probably do.  As a composer I just want to make springboards for the people I want to be with to be able to do something.  Do whatever they want to, actually.  My perfect band would be a band where you had this body of work, and people would go out in twos, or solos, or threes, or everybody, but everybody picks wherever they want to start in that body of work.  The compositions are kind of incidental, and I think living where I do I have the luxury of that.  I think sometimes, in the more major centers, trends happen, especially in composition and people have to follow those trends.  I stay really poor, but I don't have to do that.

Tafuri: You're saying there's less pressure?

Bisio: I think so. I don't have to conform as much as other people.  There's not like a critic picking up a trend, and the next thing you know, everybody's doing it.  You see trends like a few years ago, everybody had to be playing Eastern European music.  Well, what do they know about that?  It's kind of like the Wynton thing —what they know are the notes.  Beyond that, it's really meaningless to them, except it's hip at this time.

Tafuri: It's devoid of the feeling that comes from real understanding.

Bisio: They haven't lived in a Communist country all their lives, been under constant surveillance ... to me, with the history in this music, to try to recreate that stuff is just as silly to me as a repertory band.  I mean, what do you hope to do?  To just go out and recreate it holds no interest to me.

Tafuri: I think the great players are the people who are true to themselves, with their music.  A moment ago, you said you felt like as a composer you have less ego than as a performer; it seems to me like the way you describe your performance, and your interactions with others, and your relationship to music, you describe the music as being something that's out there, that you're tapping into.  It sounds like your compositions are a similar kind of thing, a vehicle that the people you're playing with can tap into.

Bisio: Yeah —I'm a great believer in spontaneous composition, which is, in my mind, performing.  But it doesn't lessen the compositional factor of it.  When I was talking about me as a composer, I was talking about actually writing notes down on paper.

Tafuri: I see...

Bisio: 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.

Tafuri: It takes on a life of its own.

Bisio: Yeah, and it's because of the people you put in it.  Of course, not everybody gets to choose who they put in their building, but I can.  [Laughter.]

Tafuri: It's true —that's a great way to put it.  You've worked in so many different settings, you come here to New York every year or so, you're spanning the continent —how did you come to hook up with the guys on this recording?

Bisio: Bob and I went to the University of Washington together —Bob is a genius, his harmonic thing is scary.  He's a year younger than me, but I call him my "father of harmony."  He's so heavy, and such a beautiful guy.  Rob is from Portland [OR], lived in Texas for some years, then moved back.  We had a connection through Silkheart, so he contacted me, and we played together —we've been playing ever since.  These guys, if I could pick anybody, I'd pick them.  And Rob, on the trumpet, you don't hear that kind of fluidity —it's like he's a saxophone player, but it's brass.  He's a great trumpet player.  His lines are so long and beautiful.

Tafuri: He's amazing.  When you first sent me the recording, I played some for [trumpeter/composer] Ron Horton, and Ron was knocked out.

Bisio: I'm gonna use the word amazing over and over, so we might as well get that out of the way....  [Laughs.]  It doesn't lessen my feelings for them if I use the same words to describe them.  They're all geniuses.  Ed I met here in Seattle; he was at the University getting his doctorate.  Ed's always had a driving interest in Indian music, and he plays a forerunner to the tabla.  He called me, because he wanted people to play music like he plays it —we started playing, and no matter what either of us does, it works.  There's never any tension about where is this, where is that, what did you just do ... we don't have to think that way, and that's such a liberating experience.  In fact, Ed has now moved to Bangladesh; he's working with the Peace Corps, teaching English, so he can go into India on the weekends to study.

Tafuri: Is that why he's doing it?

Bisio: Yeah. [Laughs.]

Tafuri: That's dedication, right there.

Bisio: Ed's always practicing —he can't really watch a movie or anything, because he's thinking about Indian music.  [Laughs.]

Tafuri: So he even taps stuff more than other drummers do when they're just sitting around, huh?

Bisio: Oh, yeah.

Tafuri: How about Jim?

Bisio: Jim and I actually met in Seattle too, many years ago when Jim lived here, but we didn't play then.  Jim and I have toured duo a lot —and man, the sound he can make ... it's amazing.  His sense of harmony, especially for a string player, is so strong.  You can just be playing, and suddenly he'll come in and blow backup lines that are just amazing.  We're also involved in Running Man, the Deidre Murray opera.

Tafuri: Oh, yeah....

Bisio: That'll be at Tanglewood in August.

Tafuri: I don't know if you know this about me, but through elementary school I played violin and viola, so anybody that has anything to do with viola, I'm down...

Bisio: It blends so well with the trumpet.

Tafuri: It really does.  I've heard Mat Maneri play [viola] in groups —as a matter of fact, he's borrowing my viola at the moment....  So listen, can we talk a little about the tunes on the album?  I know you didn't write all of them...

Bisio: Three, I guess.

Tafuri: This tune "Undulation Song" —where did that come from?

Bisio: That's actually a song I wrote with drummers in mind; I wanted something where they'd just undulate.  Ed's the perfect guy for it —the two guys who've really played that are Ed and Billy Mintz.  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.

Tafuri: Tell me about "Grimes Henry Grimes."

Bisio: It's a tribute to Henry.  To me, he's the giant.  He pushed the bass into areas.....  It's just something I wanted to do for him.  In performance, I was lucky enough that people didn't try to take the sections separately.  I just love that kind of overlaying.  It's simply a tribute to someone who inspired me forever and ever.  That's really all I can say about it.  I hear my compositions pretty quickly —it might take me longer to write them out, but I just hear them in kind of a mass.

Tafuri: Where did the "Hi Fly" quote come from?

Bisio: It just came from the fact that he was the highest flying guy I knew.  [Laughs.]

Tafuri: Because everybody that hears it, it's just so much fun, they go, "Hey, I know that! What is that?"

Bisio: Quotes are fun, and in this case he's so far up there, that it was just there.  That's all there was to it.  Sometimes, in different albums, I've quoted things just for the fun of it.  Sometimes people notice it, sometimes they don't.  In Covert Choreography, I do the Woody Woodpecker song, and I don't think anybody has ever said, "Hey, that's the Woody Woodpecker song."  [Laughs.]  Like I said, music's in the air, and if there's something out there that's useful, I'll probably use it.

Tafuri: Fits right in.  How about "Doesn't Really"?

Bisio: "Doesn't Really" is loosely based on a twelve tone row.  It has a kind of Monkish theme, with the rhythms....

Tafuri: It felt like Herbie Nichols to me, but I've been listening to a lot of Herbie Nichols, both in the original form, and also through the Herbie Nichols Project, Frank Kimbrough's band.

Bisio: Yeah, sure.  A good analogy.  It's twelve tones, but I try to make it sound through-composed as much as I can.  In this case, only the melody is twelve tones —it's not like I'm doing serial stuff when I'm walking, and it's not that Bob's harmonies are serial in any way.

Tafuri: It's the vehicle, again.

Bisio: Yeah. Actually, Jim is the person who named that tune.  We used to do it duo also, and he said, "What do you call this?"  I said, "Well, it doesn't really have a title."  He took a pencil and wrote "Doesn't Really."  [Laughs.]

Tafuri: That's great.  I remember years and years ago, when I did radio, I interviewed an old saxophone player and composer.  He had all these really funny cool titles to his compositions —he either didn't want to say or he was telling the truth, but he'd say "Oh, it's just a name." [Laughs.]  Can you talk about the other tunes?

Bisio: Sure.

Tafuri: "Legends"?

Bisio: "Legends" is the only tune Ed ever wrote.

Tafuri: Really?

Bisio: Yeah.  We had to pry it out of him.  That whole session evolved after a short tour that the quintet did.  The tour was based on "Covert Choreography," so after the tour, I said we should go in and record. I didn't want to record anything we'd done on tour, so I asked everybody else to bring in one piece.  Ed was really shy about it, but he brought it in, and it just killed.

Tafuri: You what it reminds me of?  It reminds me of the George Adams-Don Pullen Quartet, the really driving stuff on Black Saint/Soul Note, the classic recordings.  When I saw the title "Legends" it also made me think of that.  Like the contemporary legendary players.  That's a great cut.  I think also it ties into what you were saying earlier —that's an example of where feeling and color and spirit really come through —the interpretation of the music is kind of loose.  It's like listening to the David Murray Big Band, or the Octet.

Bisio: On that whole record I just love how everybody just said what they wanted when they wanted.  That to me is the epitome.  If everybody else has to stand around while somebody's soloing, that gets a little old.  It's been done so many times, why do it again?  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.  That's what makes a band —it's no longer a gig, it's a band.

Tafuri: I think there really is a cohesive, cooperative spirit in that.  I wonder how much the malleability and the spirit of the group's leader had to do with that?

Bisio: Oh, I don't know.  [Laughs.]

Tafuri: I didn't expect you to respond to that.  [Laughs.]  Hey, how about this "Injury or Malpractice?"

Bisio: That's Bob.  Bob was a composition major in school.  At University of Washington there's this Breechman scholarship for piano performers, and Bob is such a dude, here he is a composition major, and he took the Breechman scholarship for playing.  Bob's thought process is very advanced, and yet the title comes from an injury he had that wasn't taken care of properly.....

Tafuri: Do you know Bob's album on New World?  We have that here, we listen to that, it's fun.

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