A Trombonist’s Tale

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, the Vandermark-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 Wed-nesday 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.