Bassist Michael Bisio feels the force of creative music and follows its flow. In the…
Bassist Michael Bisio feels the force of creative music and follows its flow.
In the middle of MBefore (Tao Forms), bassist Michael Bisio’s recent quartet album, there’s a version of “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” a song composed in 1944 by Jule Styne with lyrics by Sammy Cahn. Here, this ballad, made indelible across decades by instrumentalists including Miles Davis and Chet Baker and by singers including Frank Sinatra, fairly floats, the melody clearly expressed yet as if remembered through dreamy fragments, by Bisio, violist Mat Maneri, vibraphonist Karl Berger and drummer Whit Dickey. As elsewhere on an album otherwise dominated by original and new compositions, both the sturdiness and delicacy of Bisio’s bass playing stand out. As does his innate sense of pulse, coupled with his wonderfully elastic treatment of time. Most of all, there is his evident love of form as something to live within, not be constrained by. There’s something yet more that comes across in these musical exchanges, through Bisio’s band-leading here, as well as through his broad and diverse work as a member of other ensembles. The liner note to MBefore — written by pianist Matthew Shipp, in whose trio Bisio has shone for more than a decade — gets at that less tangible aspect. “Michael Bisio is one of the greatest bassists on the planet,” Shipp explains, “but this album isn’t about his bass playing. It’s about his humanity.” Like so many great bassists in history — Charles Mingus, whose music first attracted Bisio to his instrument and to jazz, or Charlie Haden or lesser-celebrated heroes like Henry Grimes — Bisio’s sound, and the way he engages with other instrumentalists, manages to express empathy and compassion. One terrific example of that quality, and how it gets shared, is the recent duo album from Bisio and Shipp, Flow of Everything (Fundacja Słuchaj), on which, befitting its title, musical ideas flow in currents, forms eddies and streams, and sometimes form reflective pools of meditative sound. “I Fall in Love Too Easily” shows up also as the ninth and final track of Inimitable (Mung Music), the lovely and daring solo bass release from Bisio earlier this year. Here, all those same qualities come across — the grounded yet mutable sense of swing, the ability to work within and without a melody at the same time — but we get a more intense understanding of the nuances of a variety of tones that Bisio elicits from his instrument. His mastery is best understood through texture and tone.Bisio’s affection for that particular ballad dates back some 40 years, when he recalls playing it in a trio led by vocalist Jay Clayton at a bar inside the Boeing Airfield in Seattle, Washington. Bisio was born in upstate New York, in Troy, not too far from where he now lives, in Kingston. In between, he spent 30 years in Seattle, lured there first by Jim Harnett, the principal bass of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, who he studied with at the University of Washington. While there, his playing included the forward-leaning Contemporary Group, co-led by clarinetist Bill Smith and trombonist Stuart Dempster. Bisio worked widely in Seattle, playing in pit orchestras and wedding bands, working with singers and within instrumental ensembles. “I got there at the end of 1975,” he says, “and stayed for 30 years, and it allowed me to develop without interference.” What he means, in part, is that his experience out west kept him away from the largely Balkanized jazz scene in New York City during that time, when a young player often had to choose between a swinging, straightahead world and something freer. “I can remember, vividly, the first time I knew I was swinging on a bandstand,” he says. “I felt elevated within myself, and I can’t imagine my life without that experience. It’s just not necessarily what I do. It’s simply part of my language.” While in Seattle, Bisio sought out others who shared that outlook. He worked with the best and most adventurous West Coast players, including reedman Carter Jefferson and trumpeter Barbara Donald. (He recalls Donald’s exhortations from the bandstand: “Energy, energy, energy!”). He recorded and toured with pianist Wayne Horvitz. He also worked, notably, with saxophonist Charles Gayle, who he met while Gayle was touring out west, and which “gave me a stamina that I didn’t know before,” he says. “There would be a puddle of sweat when I was done playing with Charles. Yet I didn’t want to stop.”In Jackson Street After Hours, a book about Northwest regional jazz, author Paul de Barros positions Bisio as one the pre-eminent heirs to Seattle’s earthy yet innovative tradition. Once Bisio returned to the East Coast — first to the Lower East Side, and then back to upstate New York — he brought that tradition with him, finding fast communion with the best and freest-thinking of New York City musicians. His close musical kinship with Shipp, now in its second decade, is something Shipp sensed right away. “He played a walking bass line under what I was doing during a commissioned piece for The Kitchen, and I just knew,” Shipp said. “He seemed to be right in the middle of the language: His mind was in the new music, but he had the background in straightahead jazz that I wanted. He could walk that mean bassline but also go lots of other places. Also, he had a majesty of sound with the bass that resonated the way I needed.”Bisio has a lasting and highly productive relationship, as well, with Joe McPhee, a multi-instrumentalist whose music is both highly conceptual and rich with arresting and accessible beauty. That relationship, which began some 30 years ago, has infused several musical configurations, from duo to larger ensembles. On the recent album, The Sweet Spot (RogueArt), which features a quartet including McPhee, Bisio, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and percussionist Juma Sultan, Bisio’s playing sounds especially tender. “Joe allows you to be who you are,” Bisio says, “and he doesn’t treat you like you are just another player. He knows that he is an artist, and he assumes that you are, too. He makes you an artist, which is the most liberating and kindest thing.”Bisio appears to do the same wherever he goes. By now he is at the top rank of those who play in a liberated fashion and are intent on freeing others, musicians and listeners alike, from preconceptions or limitations. “You have to make yourself vulnerable enough to let everyone in,” he says of his musical world. “You have to be let in, and you have to let yourself be let in. And then you have to let others in. On some level, that’s how the best music works, like a force that envelops us.” - Larry Blumenfeld
Featured photo by Byron Smith.