The low-end theorist

A Seattle bassist keeps jazz tradition alive by stretching it out.

"I'M PLAYING OUT of town more and more, about three months a year now," says Michael Bisio over an overflowing plate of Ethiopian appetizers. We're eating at a restaurant near Bisio's Columbia City home, just around the corner from Eye and Ear Control, the record store where he's scheduled to play later in the evening with alto saxophonist and fellow Seattle jazz veteran Wally Shoup. "This time it was a month, which is kind of a long time," he says of his last tour. "I'm hoping to make it three weeks at a time from now on."


Undulations (Omnitone)

Not that Bisio is complaining. For one thing, that tour took him back to his home turf and family near Troy, New York. For another, his main order of business was cellist/performance artist/composer Diedre Murray's "jazz opera" Running Man, a portrait of a young musician who falls prey to drug addiction that was short-listed for a Pulitzer Prize. Bisio and his 300-year-old upright—"Almost the only bass I've ever owned"—anchored the show's runs at Massachusetts' prestigious Tanglewood Festival and in New York City.

Those performances constitute only one part of what has turned into the busiest year of Bisio's career. This week, Brooklyn indie label Omnitone releases Undulations, a quintet album whose melodic fire and rhythmic surefootedness recalls that of Bisio's bassist/composer hero, Charles Mingus. In addition, 2000 saw the release of his MBEK (Meniscus), a daring, darting, frequently arresting duo album with violinist Eyvind Kang. He also appears on saxophonist Joe McPhee's new Speaking in Tongues (CIMP) and just began teaching what he hopes will become a regular improvisation workshop at the Experience Music Project.

The onslaught of new work might seem daunting, but the 44-year-old Bisio remains more intensely enthusiastic than many musicians half his age. "The millennium has been really good for me," he says cheerfully.

A JAZZ CAREER wasn't quite what Bisio had in mind when his older brother approached him with a Fender bass and asked him to join his band 27 years ago. "He was kind of a local rock star, a Hendrix clone," says Bisio. While playing with his brother, Bisio, then 17, walked into his school band's instrument room and promptly fell in love with the double bass mounted on the wall.

"I didn't listen to jazz when I was a teenager," he recalls. "But I always wanted to play it. I remember when I was a toddler, watching TV and seeing Max Roach and Charles Mingus rush Ed Sullivan's stage. That left a lasting impression on me; I was always attracted to the music's energy. Once I started on the upright, I practiced like crazy—and I've never played electric bass again."

In 1976, a 20-year-old Bisio moved here to study at the UW with Jim Harnett, who occupied the first bassist's chair in the Seattle Symphony until his recent retirement. Bisio also frequented the jam sessions at the now-closed Pioneer Square Tavern and began picking up gigs around town. After a few years, however, burnout beckoned. "I was very unhappy after awhile trying to be everybody's bass player," he says. "When you learn how to gig, it just gets you to the next gig. I wanted people to hire Michael Bisio, not 'a bass player.'"

He spent much of the '80s learning to be his own man, hitting pay dirt with 1988's In Seattle (Silkheart) with drummer Teo Sutton, saxophonist Rick Mandyck, and trumpeter Rod Soderstrom. The album won rave reviews, with The Village Voice naming it one of the decade's best jazz albums. But though Bisio seemed in a position to move his popularity forward, inner strife disintegrated the band.

"I'd find myself recruiting new members and teaching them the record," Bisio says of the breakup's aftermath. "It had been an exercise in creative musicianship that stopped being creative." He retreated from the spotlight, working with Wayne Horvitz and Buddy Catlett and playing the occasional classical gig before hitting the road with Charles Gayle in 1993, an experience Bisio recalls fondly: "We played in coffeehouses in really small towns in California, and people would chip in to defray the touring costs. The closer I get to playing exactly how I want to play, the harder it is economically."

That essence is plumbed as purely as imaginable on MBEK, which begins with a stately cover of Coltrane's "Seraphic Light" before moving into territory even further off the map. Dissonance abounds on tracks such as "MBEK" and "After the Break," but it's far from noise for its own sake. You can hear Bisio and Kang reaching for the ineffable—and frequently attaining it, too—as when "MBEK" states a music-box theme before pummeling it like taffy into guttural moans and wails. Such moments are not everyone's cup of tea, of course. But the album is gratifyingly accessible for an improv disc, cutting its more purely experimental moments with lovely, straightforward melodies like the Kurt Weill-esque "The Biszer" and "Cardinal Waters," whose gypsy feel is explored in two radically different takes, the first stretching over 22 minutes.

MBEK was funded by an Artist Trust grant from the Washington State Arts Commission (the second Bisio has received) and recorded by noted local engineer Tucker Martine (Land of the Loops, Sick Bees). "That's why there's the in the title," explains Bisio with a smile. "It looks like 'trademark,' but it's actually for Tucker Martine." The album was released on its small Minneapolis label thanks to a fortuitous interview with the journalist who runs Meniscus.

Something similar occurred with Undulations, which came about almost by accident. "I'd toured with the quintet [in 1995]," he says of sidemen Bob Nell (piano), Ed Pias (drums), Jim Nolet (viola), and Rob Blakeslee (trumpet/cornet/flgelhorn). "While we were on the road we went into a studio and played our set, and I'd totally forgotten about it until Jim Nolet asked about it. I dug it out and put it on and it sounded great." Phil McNally, the jazz buyer at Tower Records in Bellevue, greased the wheels for the session's Omnitone release.

The crowd at Eye and Ear Control measures about a dozen when Bisio and Wally Shoup start to work on Albert Ayler's "Bells" while crammed in the store's back corner. Plucking frenetically, Bisio follows Shoup's establishment of the tune's head; as Shoup begins dancing around the melody, the bassist takes out the bow and begins sawing away, leading the saxophonist down to a slow crawl. The tempo speeds up, and Bisio lays his bow aside to begin smacking away at his strings. They slow down again and Shoup blows some lovely legato lines as Bisio returns to bowing subdued harmonics underneath before taking a high, fuguelike solo turn. Shoup returns, growling gutturally, and Bisio begins wringing the strings astride the fretboard with his plucking hand. He soon switches back to the bow, with hunks of Styrofoam wedged between its stick and hair to give his bass an accentuated high end closer to a viola or violin.

"Bells" ends. The store is twice as full, and everyone applauds enthusiastically while the duo begins another, much softer number. Nearing its coda, Shoup steps aside, letting Michael Bisio bow the song to an efficient, quiet, enraptured close.

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