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Press about Jeb Bishop

"... one of the best-kept secrets in American jazz ..."
-- Lloyd Sachs, Chicago Sun-Times, January 6, 2002

Chicago Sun-Times
Thursday, January 22, 2004
Author: Kevin Whitehead
Jeb Bishop/Josh Abrams/Hamid Drake at Empty Bottle

Jeb Bishop is the most inspiring player to come out of the North Side improvising scene associated with Ken Vandermark. In recent years, the trombonist has blossomed into a major voice on his instrument, with a big, punchy tone, an instinctive sense of melody and the wisdom not to run on too long. A veteran of multiple international tours, he's a frequent collaborator with like‑minded players here and abroad.

Bishop has a fine working trio, with bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Tim Mulvenna, which plays stretched‑out versions of the leader's tunes. But he occasionally dallies with another trio, featuring bassist Josh Abrams and a drummer too busy to play his home town much anymore, the phenomenal Hamid Drake.

They'd played a handful of gigs five years ago and reunited for a pair of shows this month. To judge by Tuesday night's Empty Bottle gig, they should do it more often. The trio has never rehearsed, and they don't play tunes; the music was free‑improvised all the way.

Totally improvised music can get pretty abstract, but the group's two sets of freebop had all that good stuff jazz fans prize: catchy themes that launch extended solos, propulsive riffs, headlong swing, hints of Afro‑Cuban rhythms and happy surprises.

For Bishop, variation is crucial. He can't help but thematically develop any line or lick that comes into his head or out of his horn. He's a natural blues player, with a broad, shouting sound that reaches back to 19th‑century field hollers.

Bishop keeps a variety of mutes at hand, and uses them to bring out Ellingtonian wah‑wahs, faint man‑in‑a‑closet mumbles and fast chattering tones, sometimes in rapid succession.

His bandmates are quick‑change artists, too. Drake is among the most powerful of drummers, but Tuesday he was admirably discreet. Instead of centering on snare drum and ride cymbal in the usual jazz manner, he focused on rolling patterns on his two tom‑toms, using them rather like a Latin drummer's punctuating timbales.

Abrams amplified Drake's jazz and funk beats in his own parts, but also supplied rhythmic counterpoint to the drums, melodic counterpoint to trombone, and bowed drones that anchored the fast action. Plucking, he can get a deep throb out of the bass, like New York's celebrated William Parker, or a popping sound like the great pre‑amplifier jazz bassists.

Their collective sound was smart, earthy, endlessly rewarding. Fitting that saxophone titan Fred Anderson sat in the front row; this is just the kind of bluesy, barrier‑free jazz he's played and promoted for decades.

© 2004 Chicago Sun-Times


The Wire Magazine, May 2003
Author: Andy Hamilton
Jeb Bishop Trio live in Newcastle, England

You've heard the JB Horns, now listen up for the JB Horn - Jeb Bishop, peerless trombonist and musical brother of Ken Vandermark. This is the Chicago eminence's third visit to Newcastle in as many years, last year playing free Improv in an Anglo-American quartet with Tony Bevan, John Edwards and Michael Zerang. This occasion featured Bishop's trio with bassist Kent Kessler and Tim Mulvenna, in his more groove-based, multi-sectional compositions, full of intriguing contrasts of mood and feel. He began as a classical player, studying trombone at Chicago's Northwestern University, then went "cold turkey" on the instrument for several years, playing electric bass in punk and jazz bands. Returning to Chicago, he picked up the horn again, becoming a longstanding presence in the city's Improv scene and member of the Vandermark 5 since 1995. Stylistically influenced by George Lewis in particular, he's introduced the trombone into an eclectic choice of situations, recording with avant luminaries such as Jim O'Rourke, Stereolab, Gastr del Sol and the Sea and Cake, and on Improv dates with Joe McPhee (The Brass City) and Mats Gustaffson, Wadada Leo Smith, Hamid Drake and others (98 Duets).

For this brief UK tour - with dates also at Cheltenham and London's Vortex - he brought over his established trio with the magnificent Vandermark 5 rhythm team of Kessler and Mulvenna. Trombone trio is a rare formation - Steve Swell, Ray Anderson and Connie Bauer have tried it, but not too many others - but Bishop reckoned he could stretch out more than in the Vandermark group. My first thought was that the combination was going to be pretty dry sonically, and a trombonist in such a setting had better not essay the smooth, non-vocalised style of bebop master J.J. Johnson. But Bishop's approach was very varied, deploying a variety of mutes and vocalised tones. His armoury includes straight, plunger and harmon mute - the one Miles Davis used to such potent effect, though Bishop retains the middle section to create a more vocalised sound. Tim Mulvenna used a hired kit but brought his own cymbals - a common policy. In the small venue of the Corner House there was no need for amplification except for the onstage bass amp, and none was used.

Several pieces came from the trio's two albums, including "Cryptic Remark" from their first, the functionally-titled Jeb Bishop Trio. After a storming opening, it featured an arco solo from Kessler, followed by incredibly driving Improv. A couple of new compositions were as yet unnamed, the first using a harmon mute to quieten the horn, the second, sinuously-themed with growling trombone - Bishop mostly seems to avoid the open horn. In the second set, "900" slipped into multiphonics, a spontaneous tendency of Bishop's involving vocalising through the horn. "The Umbrella" used margarine tub mute - two tubs one inside the other in fact - and a serendipitous blast on someone's car-horn outside fell into a convenient gap in the line. "Mirror Image" was a slow, mournful piece using plunger mute, while the closing "Duress Duress" featured the fleetest trombone of the evening - a wake-up call and testifying tromboneliness from the episcopal master of Chicago jazz.

© 2003 The Wire


Chicago Reader, January 22, 1999
Author: Peter Margasak
Jeb Bishop profile

(original page here)

Jeb Bishop's trombone solos always have a destination: they may twist and turn over shifting and sometimes treacherous terrain, but they always end up precisely where he wanted them to go. Until recently, though, he couldn't say the same about his career. In the last few years Bishop, 36, has become an integral component of Chicago's rich jazz-and-improvised-music community, participating in key groups like the Vandermark 5 and making a slew of recordings that showcase his versatility as well as his skill. But the path to his mainstay status has been more circuitous than his most frenzied improvisations.

A native of Raleigh, North Carolina, Bishop brought his horn to Northwestern University in 1980 to study orchestral music. It took him two years to completely lose interest. "It came to seem really stiff and mechanical to me," he says. "You're training to be a kind of robot. That whole world began to seem really narrow and I got disillusioned with it."

He went home to Raleigh to study engineering at North Carolina State. He also began to play less formal kinds of music--mostly, punk rock. He picked up an electric bass and formed a hardcore band called Stillborn Christians with a guitarist friend who'd recently dropped out of Berklee, the commercial-music school in Boston. When they weren't thrashing at all-ages matinees, the two played jazz tunes out of a fakebook. Then, after one more year of engineering and another as a philosophy major, Bishop enrolled in a rigorous one-year BA program at the University of Louvain in Belgium.

During his year abroad, he caught performances by American jazz mavericks like Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy, and Joseph Jarman, artists who rarely, if ever, performed in North Carolina. When he returned to Raleigh, in the summer of 1985, he found little there to nurture his new interests. "I had heard all this improvised stuff and I had been listening to stuff like [seminal prog rockers] Henry Cow, and I wanted to do something in the vein," he says.

Bishop entertained himself for the next four years by playing in a series of unorthodox rock bands, most notably Angels of Epistemology, which released one CD of lo-fi avant-pop, Fruit, on Merge Records, and Metal Pitcher, a trio with Mac MacCaughan and Laura Ballance that later evolved into Superchunk. Bishop wasn't around for the moment of transformation; he left in 1989 to attend grad school at the University of Arizona. But he disliked Tucson, so the following year he transferred yet again, to Loyola.

In the fall of 1992, he became first a fan of Ken Vandermark's quartet and then a friend of its leader, who was also still honking his brains out in the rock band Flying Luttenbachers. When the Luttenbachers decided to expand from a trio to a quintet, they asked Bishop to play bass, which he did until late 1994. Even in his first proper jazz band in Chicago, theVandermark-helmed Unheard Music Quartet, he played electric bass. Although he had retrieved his trombone from his parents' attic in 1992, he didn't play it out regularly until late 1995, when he cofounded the Vandermark 5.

By that time Bishop had secured his current job, a nine-to-five gig translating German and French patent applications for a downtown law firm. "It was music that I'd always been interested in," he says. "But I wasn't sure that I could approach it as a player. I didn't know if I had the skills, and it was a little bit mystifying. The fact that I met people who I could just play with casually was the impetus for me to keep doing it." Nonetheless, Bishop has emerged as both a desired sideman and a respected leader, playing venues like the Empty Bottle, the old Lunar Cabaret, and the new Nervous Center with both his usual cohorts and out-of-town stars, most recently European percussionist Paul Lytton.

"The last six years have been an intensive education for me, learning to understand the music more deeply while learning how to play it at the same time," he says. "A lot of weeks I'll be playing, rehearsing, or going to see some gig I'm interested in most nights. I don't get enough sleep."

Bishop's explorations have turned out to be quite fruitful: On the compositions on his forthcoming Okka Disc trio album, with the elastic support of bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Tim Mulvenna, he's able to reconcile a remarkable lyricism with a wide range of abstract effects, from throaty smears to choppy blurts. By contrast his 98 Duets (released on Wobbly Rail, a fledgling label run by McCaughan) features a beautifully fragile and spacious array of duo improvisations with Vandermark, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Mats Gustafsson, Josh Abrams, Hamid Drake,and Wadada Leo Smith. And just out on the Swiss label Miguel is Building a Better Future, the debut album by In Zenith, a rock-tinged trio featuring Bishop, Lonberg-Holm, and percussionist Michael Zerang.

Both In Zenith and Bishop's trio will perform Wednesday at the Empty Bottle on a bill celebrating the third anniversary of the club's jazz series. Gustafsson (playing Steve Lacy), Vandermark and Hamid Drake (playing Funkadelic), and the Fred Anderson Trio also perform.

©Chicago Reader