Friday, April 21, 2017

Interview with Michael Bisio - Preview for April 22 Show

With Caleb Gamble & Joel Kennedy (duo)
Saturday, April 22  
8 pm   $15
Distro, 4614 Liberty Ave, Bloomfield   412-682-0591

Bassist Michael Bisio and I talked by phone at the beginning of this week. Anyone who has seen Matthew Shipp over the past eight years or so probably knows Bisio as the pianist's right hand man, developing an amazing musical rapport that's both visceral and melodic. This Saturday, he comes to town with saxophonist Avram Fefer, who hasn't been to Pittsburgh since about 2005, when he came with pianist Bobby Few.
Michael has led an interesting life, as I found out from our conversation, which follows. I realize there are 1001 things happening tomorrow night, but this show is a good way to kick off the evening. And for anyone reading in other cities, there's mention below of other shows Bisio has coming up with Joe McPhee.
You’re originally from New York and then you went out west. Were you studying classical bass or jazz?

I started life as a classical player. Somewhat late as a professional player, I started playing when I was 17. My first teacher was a very inspirational guy, so I used to practice a lot. At one point after about a year or two, he said ,okay you’re ready to go up and study with Henry Portnoy, who was the principal bassist in BSO [Boston Symphony Orchestra] at the time.. I went up and auditioned. He accepted me but he scared the life out of me at the same time. I didn’t really grow up with that music. I took a lot of time into it in a very condensed space. 

So that summer I was on a scholarship to Chatauaqua Institution, which is on the western boarder of New York State. And I met and studied with the principal bassist of the Seattle Symphony [Jim Harnett], who not only was every bit as good as Henry —I mean, I don’t know if I can say that — but I got along with him. And I needed a change because of life habits I had. So I moved to Seattle. I studied with Jim Harnett.
Like I said I didn’t grow up with that music and there were a lot of social things I didn’t get.

What music did you grow up with?

Jimi Hendrix. The Rolling Stones. My brother was the local Hendrix clone. So I was around a lot of that music a lot of the time, and a lot of what were underground bands at the time like Ultimate Spinach and the Velvet Underground, I always knew who Mingus was. And there were some Albert Ayler records at that time which had a crossover audience. So I heard New Grass. It was a huge influence.

So I went out and studied with Jim. At the same time I studied composition and improvisation with Bill Smith. [Smith inspired Bisio’s CD with Kirk Knuffke,Row for William O] I studied with him and Stuart Dempster, the great trombonist.

When I graduated I was a sub in the symphony. I was a sub in the opera. I was a freelancer. And I was playing jazz music all along as well. Then I got a contract with the ballet. Then it came to a point where I really had to make a decision. Once I knew my family was cool, I walked away from that, in a way. Shortly after that, people couldn’t believe I actually had a career that way. I changed everything I could. In more recent times I’ve reintroduced some of that stuff in a different way.

When you say you walked away from that, was it in the early ‘80s? I know around that time you played with [trumpeter] Barbara Donald

Barbara was really the first person of note to take an interest in me. And Barbara was awesome. And so much so that I probably wasn’t as appreciative as I should have been. …She would fight with me a lot. I was stupid enough to fight back. [Laugh] I guess she heard something in me and she was trying to push those things.

You know, she was married to Sonny Simmons. [Note: Donald passed away in 2013. More info on her life can be found here.] When I played with Sonny…he would say things like, “You’re in the steel foundry of love and I’m going to work you to death, motherfucker!” Smart man, brilliant musician.
[fading in from another discussion} And I was a sucker for all that stuff anyway. A good story? Man, you got me. And Sonny had a billion good stories. 

But ultimately I just…I can’t deal like that anymore. I’m too old for it. I know what I want to do. If it could just be me, Matthew [Shipp, piano] and Newman [Taylor Baker, drums] my whole life, I’d be happy. Because you know what’s going to happen in a business sense, all the time. The music’s always new, always wonderful, always there. 

Which is musically how Avram and I operate too. It’s very stream of consciousness. The tunes we play are mostly Avram’s. He has quite a few memorable things we can refer to in the midst of a set. And so that’s what happens.

Avram and I met in Seattle but neither of us can pinpoint when or where that was. We’ve been playing a loooong time. And Avram was in my Bisio Quartet, when it was Jay Rosen (drums) and Stephen Gauci (saxophone) as well. There are for our five CIMP records with that configuration. Which is also around the time that the duo session happened. Because one time it was a combined session where there was one quartet record and one duo record. There are a couple records on some other labels too.

When you come here are you doing compositions or will it be strictly improvisation?

The compositions have a lot of open space for sure. Hopefully we’ll play a couple tunes of mine. But that doesn’t always happen. I don’t know why [laughs] but it does. So, in bass solos I’ll play my own compositions.

But it’s pretty open. I don’t exactly know what he has planned for this trip. But more times than not, we play in that suite format that Matthew and I do: Everything runs into everything else. You stand up and you start. There’s really no silences, except in rests. It’s not like I’m going to play a tune and stop it and tell jokes or something.   

When did you move back east?

August 2005. Avram and I had played in Seattle, and in the Northwest. Matthew and I met out there but we didn’t play until I came back. We played first in 2007, though I used to live just down the street from Matthew when I first got back.

Prior to moving back, were you doing a lot of traveling across the country, stopping in New York?

I was. Starting in the '90s I had this wonderful association with [saxophonist and trumpeter] Joe McPhee which is… I wouldn’t be me without Joe. He’s one of these people I am eternally grateful to, and is a pleasure to be around, every second of every day. We met about 1994, maybe. He started inviting me back and he would come out west. Starting in the '90s I did come back more and more. Around the time I moved back, my first marriage dissolved and my son was living in Brooklyn. So I was working more on the East Coast than on the West Coast so it made sense to move back.

Joe and I, last time I counted, we were on 18-20 records together. Now I live in the Hudson Valley, so I see Joe quite a bit again. When I get back, we’re playing this club with me, him, Joe Giardullo (saxophones), Billly Stein (guitar) and a painter, Nancy Ostrovsky, are playing on April 27 at the Falcon (find details here). And on April 29 Joe and I doing a memorial service for a children’s book author [Nancy Willard, at Friends Meeting House in Poughkeepsie]. 

Where does Avram life?

Avram’s on the Lower East Side. I live in Kingston, New York.

Do you get to play with him often?

We play three or four times a year. It depends, sometimes more sometimes less. He has a lot of interests. Some of his bands are more rock oriented. Obviously my commitment is to Matthew. That’s about it, as far as playing together.

When you get together is it easy to settle in with him, since you known him so long?

Well, Avram tells a good story, so it’s always pretty easy. Our history is so long that we know each other well. There are not a lot of bad parts about getting older. One [good thing] is the relationships you keep just keep getting stronger. That’s certainly the case with Avram and I. We don’t have to think. I sit at home and I think. And I like to practice. Not everybody likes to practice. Not everybody needs to practice. But I like to practice.

But when I get up to play, it’s not the same process at all. I think for some people it is, but to me it’s just about letting it go. The more I can do that, the more satisfied I am. I don’t even like people to put a lot of demands on me, unless… if someone is going to pay me $1000 a night, yeah they can say what they want. But for the money we’re making, it’s just get up and go. That’s what makes the best music too.

Rich Halley, a great, great tenor player from Portland, Oregon, was just here. Rich and I haven’t
played in 20 years, easily, though it’s probably more like 25 or 30. It was just like we saw each other yesterday. That’s what I look for. 

The choices I’ve made in my life, I’ve realized, a. are my choices, and b. it lead me to a point where I want to be, musically. I’m no longer a hired gun, haven’t been that in a lot of years. All that was doing was preparing me for this, but at the same time it was also teaching me how to hate music. 

My first wife used to say to me, “You always come home angry.” Of course that would just start a fight. But one day, sometime around 2010, I woke up one morning and I thought, Wow, I don’t remember the last time I was angry. So I called her up and I said, “You know what? You were right. I’m sorry.” 

I have this thing: I love music. Yet I hated going to work! And I hated it for various reasons, some of which I didn’t even know. My life has been about cutting things out until I just have this left, which is a whole universe as far as I’m concerned. And it’s great. I love to be able to do it. And I love to play. I’m lucky that I’ve lived long enough to [pause] say this to you! [Laughs] 

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