Faculty News

Shawn and Bisio Team Up for Improvisations Album

In summer 2019, Music faculty member composer/pianist Allen Shawn and Instrumental faculty member bassist Michael Bisio  teamed up for a recording of extemporaneous improvisations, now available.

Image of Improvisations album

Their music has now been issued as Allen Shawn and Michael Bisio: Improvisations, a 50-minute CD or download, available at Bandcamp.

Veteran bass player Michael Bisio (b. 1955) can be heard on over 120 CDs and albums, in 24 of them as leader/co-leader. Allen Shawn (b. 1948) is best known as a composer of orchestral, chamber, and piano music, as well as the author of four books. The two musicians got to know each other at Bennington College, where they both teach. After hearing Shawn participate in a rare impromptu improvisation as pianist, Bisio suggested to him that they should go into a recording studio and “see what happens.” Despite his admiration for Bisio’s work, Shawn demurred, saying that he had no experience or facility as an improvisor. But in spring 2019, he changed his mind, and the recording took place that summer.

“I think what made the difference,” said Shawn, “is that Mike said how much he liked my composed piano music, and that he just wanted me to make things up, not to pretend to be a jazz pianist, or to improvise in any particular idiom. The irony is that I did in fact grow up hearing so much jazz—starting with my father’s amateur jazz piano-playing at home, and including hearing jazz greats like Monk, Mingus, and Ellington live—and a lot of the elements of what I heard in that tradition did influence my own musical language. Yet any listener to what Mike and I ended up playing in the recording studio will recognize immediately that what we made are simply extemporaneous pieces, and do not follow jazz structures or draw on a repertoire of practiced jazz licks on my part. I don’t have such a repertoire in my fingers. Nevertheless, most composers, of course, improvise in the privacy of their workrooms to discover ideas and to kindle their musical thinking, and I have done that since I was ten years old, when I was just starting to make up little pieces at the keyboard.

“Mike’s mastery made it possible for me to relax and try this out in the recording studio, knowing that he would make beautiful sense of whatever I played. We had never made music together at all before we entered the studio, and we planned absolutely nothing, with one small exception. In the parking lot outside the studio in Kingston, New York, I heard a simple melody running through my head that I wrote down and handed to Mike. This became the tune used in track 2 and is reprised at the end of the CD. Otherwise, the music just turned out as it turned out. We had two sessions, totaling 70 minutes, and edited them down to a 50-minute sequence of 8 tracks, which we think of as a continuous train of thought.”

The album's front and back cover artwork is TLTB (17.25 X 14 " Acrylic on Aluminum 2017) by Visual Arts faculty member Ann Pibal.