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Michael Bisio Quartet - MBefore (TAO Forms)

21 March 2022

Bassist Michael Bisio prefers to ride the edge when he makes music, sometimes taking it like a bucking bronco and sometimes coaxing it into minding his vision. Joined on MBefore by vibist Karl Berger, violist Mat Maneri and drummer/TAO Forms owner Whit Dickey, Bisio takes a set of originals by himself and Berger, plus a standard, and stretches the melodies like biscuit dough, sometimes just enough to bend meaning and other times far from any recognizable shape.

This approach is most obvious on the standard, composer Jule Styne’s much-recorded “I Fall in Love Too Easily.” Bisio’s wandering bass denies the rhythm any kind of stability, while Maneri adds a Balkan touch to his melody lines; Berger and Dickey (unusually for a drummer) merely add color. It’s a daring take on a tune most everyone in jazz knows, sticking to the melody just enough to make it recognizable, while also manhandling it away from the cocktail lounge into which it’s often stuck. The musicians cleverly shift immediately into Bisio’s “Intravenous Voice,” which starts off with the same atmosphere of “Fall in Love” before everyone gets more assertive. Maneri shifts to a drone, Berger and Dickey spread more notes and cymbals around, and Bisio carries on as before, providing a thematic unity while still keeping the beat at a broil. The closest thing to a traditional ballad, the bassist’s “r. henry” keeps calm on the surface, but reveals jitters underneath.

Comparatively, those are the easy bits. The two-part “Sea V 4 WD,” also composed by the leader, maintains a similarly loose yet evident grasp on melody as “Fall in Love,” but keeps the background in constant chaotic motion. Berger’s “Um” grounds itself on Bisio’s arco bass, which lets everyone else off leash, especially Dickey. The vibist’s “Crystal Fire” feels traditionally focused, but maintains the most frenzied pace on the record. Another Bisio piece, “AC 2.0 (revised)” abandons any notion of conventional structure almost entirely, revealing its anchor only after repeated listens.

Like a lot of free jazz albums, MBefore seems a little too unfettered at first, like the musicians have little discipline at all. But any good spontaneous composer knows that it takes self-control to truly play free, and a few spins reveal the method to the record’s madness, one based on interplay and mutual respect, not discord and anarchy.