Jeb Bishop has been in Carrboro for eight months, but the complications have yet to let him settle in. When his wife accepted a job at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in July, he followed her down from Chicago, where the trombonist had spent more than 20 years as a key cog in the city's famed free jazz scene.
But there were tours with The Whammies and Peter Brötzmann's Chicago Tentet, two vastly different ensembles—the first, a reverent and studied tribute to experimental jazz great Steve Lacy; the second, a world-renowned ensemble that specializes in ever-evolving textural expanses. Those have consumed large chunks of those eight months. And after arriving in North Carolina, he had to manage the declining health and eventual death of his father, a sad complication for an already hectic year.
"I was so much a part in Chicago of this community of musicians and listeners and promoters and venues and gigs," he says. "Removing myself from that and living here, you just can't instantly transplant yourself into the correlating scene somewhere else, even if it exists."
Bishop's not exactly in foreign territory: He was raised in Raleigh, attending Sanderson High School and later enrolling at N.C. State University as an engineering student before moving on to study philosophy. He knows enough about Carrboro to suggest Open Eye Cafe, the town's most popular caffeine canteen. And a sense of unrest serves as a thread throughout his career, whether he's been playing punk rock or jazz, living in North Carolina or Arizona.
"It's moving back in a way, but things are a lot different now than they were when I moved away," he says between sips. "I moved away from Raleigh in 1989, and Raleigh didn't even have a coffee house when I left. The first Cup A Joe opened after I moved away."
On this weekday morning, a monstrous armchair in a back corner of Open Eye seems to absorb Bishop, whose dark hair has given way to parallel fringes of gray just above the temples. He listens patiently to questions but interrupts where it feels appropriate, displaying a calm confidence in conversation that mirrors his adaptability as a collaborator. In addition to his namesake trio, he's played with a laundry list of acclaimed avant garde outfits (Exploding Star Orchestra, The Engines) and experimental rock bands such as Stereolab and The Sea and Cake. His résumé is sterling.
The past—particularly his early days in Raleigh and how those experiences eventually led him to Chicago—has been on his mind lately, inspired by the move and his recent 50th birthday. He began playing the trombone at a young age, eager to one day become a classically trained player. After high school, he left Raleigh for Illinois and Northwestern University to study music. He completed half of his degree before the strict nature of his training began to constrict his youthful desire for music that was made in the moment. He returned to Raleigh, the first of many shifts in his musical and professional focus. During the early years of the city's hardcore heyday in the '80s, he frequented punk shows and found inspiration in the famed No Core tape compilation, which features an early incarnation of punk pioneer Corrosion of Conformity.
"I still loved classical music at the time, and I still do," Bishop recalls. "But there was something about that role of being that kind of musician in that context that at the time just felt very narrow and confining to me."
Bishop indulged in the liberties presented by punk rock's self-reliance. He learned bass and guitar on the fly and ingratiated himself with the Raleigh scene. He even played bass momentarily with the Stillborn Christians, whose smattering of songs resound with such purposeful aggression that they live on in local infamy. Bishop started Angels of Epistemology, which broke from rigid punk guidelines by incorporating radical new elements in a way that would become standard procedure during the following decade. "The Charmed," an instrumental that opens the post-mortem Angels compilation Fruit, maps Bishop's developing ambition as it staggers to life with hardcore momentum via bass and guitar. But clanging background percussion recalls the No Wave cacophony of New York's Swans; the agitated, atonal saxophone foreshadows Bishop's free jazz future.
Sara Bell contributed to the Angels during their three-year existence; she now makes music with beloved locals Shark Quest and Regina Hexaphone. Bishop was one of her most challenging influences. "I'm so grateful to him," she says. "I think I have a pretty standardly melodic sensibility if left to my own devices. He made me want to approach things from the back end as opposed to the front door—just looking at it from other angles, seeing where the weirdness can come in."
Bishop left Raleigh again in 1989 to study philosophy at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He didn't care for his situation in the Southwest, so he transferred to Loyola University in Chicago where he continued his graduate studies. It's there that he realized an academic career simply didn't fit, so he leveraged the resources of his program to expand his education. He spent a summer in Germany studying the native tongue and a year in Belgium brushing up on his French. While in Belgium, he took in a string of prominent jazz musicians—Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton and, perhaps most meaningful for Bishop, an intimate performance by trombonist Garrett List. He slowly realized this is what he wanted to pursue.
"[List] played this little concert in this unheated shed in the wintertime," Bishop remembers. List, a key innovator in the '70s who played with the acoustic and electric ensemble Musica Elettronica Viva, was teaching a conservatory course in Belgium at the time. "We were sitting there in the freezing cold, and there was steam coming out the end of his horn when he played. I talked to him, and I ended up going to visit his class once. [Free jazz] was a thread that I had become interested in parallel to the rock stuff and then developed that more once I was in an environment to see more of it."
When Bishop returned to Chicago, he finally earned his master's degree in philosophy, but his wandering interest had settled decisively to free jazz. He began attending as many gigs as he could and reaching out to veteran musicians for advice. Clarinet and sax player Ken Vandermark needed a bass player for his jazz-rock outfit The Flying Luttenbachers. Bishop stepped into the role, but he soon realized he would be better served by returning to trombone.
"I hadn't touched the trombone since I left Raleigh," he says. "It had been three years at that point. It had been about 10 years since I dropped out of music school. It was good in a way because it meant that I was able to lose all of my conditioning. I thought of myself as more a guitar player and bass player."
In the decades that have followed, Bishop has grown into an expressive player and an adaptable collaborator. His ability to manipulate his instrument is astonishing. He wrenches guttural shrieks, poignant in their abrasion. And in his prettier moments, he produces crisp tones that highlight his rhythmic understanding. He's a skilled composer, too.
Bishop's greatest skill, however, might well be his ability to collaborate effectively in a wealth of different contexts, a strength that seems fueled by his freewheeling past and highlighted by his diverse string of releases in 2012. The Whammies Play the Music of Steve Lacy displays his power to fit into pre-fab arrangements while making room for well-timed flourishes that remind the listener of his presence. Old Shoulders, his collaboration with percussionist Tim Daisy, is a marvel of space and texture. But better than both is 1000 Words, a duet recording with Whammies leader and daring saxophonist Jorrit Dijkstra. With an armory of mutes, the pair conjures bizarre and absorbing tones within intoxicating melodic interplay. It's a record that somehow jolts listeners even as it lulls them into a trance.
"He's an amazing listener," Dijkstra says of what makes Bishop such a flexible collaborator. "He's super open to new ideas. He seems to have a similar approach to freedom in playing as I have in terms of open forms of tunes—playing a little tune and then launching your improvisation."
Dijkstra lives in Boston, meaning he and Bishop are actually closer to each other than they were before Bishop's move. Otherwise, though, Bishop now finds himself isolated from the readily available collaborators he had in Chicago. Since arriving, he's organized gigs with friends such as Dijkstra and the aggressive improvisational Dutch outfit Cactus Truck at the conjoined Raleigh bars Neptunes and Kings. Another of his projects, The Engines, will appear there in April. He also performed at January's Tar Heel Sound Fest in Chapel Hill.
Still, the Triangle is not as flush with experimental havens as Chicago. Chapel Hill's Nightlight, a consistent home for the avant garde, currently hosts fewer concerts than it has in the past, while Durham's Bull City Headquarters, a DIY space that hosted underground acts of all stripes, has been closed for almost three years. But Bishop, who has witnessed the rise of scenes in North Carolina and Illinois, understands that these things ebb and flow.
"It's a question of making it happen," Bishop says. "But it's been a question of making it happen for 20-some years. You improvise it. You make it happen yourself. Either I'm going to make it happen or it's not going to happen, so I guess we're going to have to wait and see."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Theme of variation."