From the Chestnut Hill Local, September 18 2008











Jim Tisdall: Capturing life’s music




Constance Garcia-Barrio



            Guitarist Jim Tisdall lives in Chestnut Hill and also dwells at the cutting edge of science.  His new CD features Grammy nominee David Bromberg, jazz great Tyrone Brown, and familiar tunes that have made it a best-selling album.

Tisdall, 56, finds himself equally at home with innovations in sound.  “I worked at Bell Laboratories with Max Mathews, who invented digital music,” Tisdall said.  While working with Mathews, Tisdall studied composition and acoustics, built electric violins, and wrote a paper that uncovers the mathematics of rhythm.  One of Tisdall’s current projects is a CD of “good music based on new sounds derived from the guitar’s natural sounds.”

Tisdall also pioneered the use of Perl, a computer language, in biology.  “Ten years ago, most biologists didn’t know how to program a computer, yet computers could help them make scientific discoveries that were otherwise impossible,” Tisdall said.  He bridged the gap with his two computer science bestsellers: Beginning Perl for Bioinformatics in 2001 and Mastering Perl for Bioinformatics in 2003.  “They’ve been translated into Japanese, Korean, French and German,” Tisdall said.

            In addition, Tisdall worked at the frontier of science as a member of the University of Pennsylvania’s Human Genome Project team.  Later, he helped to pinpoint the gene involved in hemochromatosis, a hereditary illness that causes the body to absorb too much iron.  In recent years he took part in identifying hundreds and hundreds of micro RNA genes.  “They’re a whole new class of recently-discovered genes that are critical to cell development,” Tisdall said.

            One suspects that Tisdall has found a way to expand time in order to fit in projects like “Three Men in a Boat,” his CD released in June.  This mellow music includes old favorites like “Georgia on My Mind” and four Tisdall originals.

            Music, science and serendipity have intertwined in Tisdall’s life.  He began studying violin and piano at age 6.  Then fate stepped in.  “When I was 12 I found an abandoned guitar and instruction book,” he said.  Within months, he was studying with Chuck Anderson, staff guitarist at the Latin Casino, Valley Forge Music Fair and the Shubert Theatre.  Talent and good fortune paved the way for him to continue his studies with Dennis Sandole, whose former students included the incomparable saxophonist John Coltrane.  “John Coltrane has inspired me since I first heard his great album, A Love Supreme, in my teens.”   When he met Sandole, Tisdall, in his early 20s, had been teaching for years using the Sandole method.

By then, Tisdall literally had a world of experience.  He’d done gigs in Philly night clubs, taught in LA and Tennessee, and toured with a band in Europe.  In Poland, he performed three nights with a rock and roll band.

In his mid-20s he moved to New York and still devoted himself solely to music.  He had bands of his own and appeared with such artists as Nico, of the Velvet Underground, and the James Cotton Blues Band.  He became staff guitarist at Oenophilia in New York City, and actress Elizabeth Taylor hired him to perform at her small dinner parties.

During those years Tisdall met Charles Dodge, award-winning composer of electronic music and co-author of Computer Music: Synthesis, Composition and Performance, and wound up studying with Dodge at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music.

            Then chance crossed Tisdall’s path again.  “I was riding in the subway when I sat next to a man reading a book on higher mathematics,” he recalled.  Tisdall and the math professor fell into conversation.  Before Tisdall reached his stop the professor said, “You ought to get into mathematics.”

            Tisdall cut back on his playing and composing and by 1988 he had earned a B.A. in mathematics from City College of New York and joined Bell Labs.  By 1989, he had a master’s degree in computer science from Columbia University.  “I couldn’t teach and perform as much as before, but I was always thinking about music,” he said.  “That hasn’t changed.”

            A fellowship from Penn’s Department of Computer and Information Science brought Tisdall back to his home turf.  That position led to his work on the Human Genome Project.  “We worked on chromosome 22,” he said.  “Defects in the Philadelphia chromosome, as it’s been dubbed, have been shown to cause leukemia, a cancer of the blood,” said Tisdall, who also led a group of bioinformatics researchers for five years at the Fox Chase Cancer Center.

            Tisdall did a couple of stints as a computational biologist and as a research consultant prior to his current position, research scientist and principal investigator in genetic discovery with DuPont in Wilmington.  The science-music twain met once more, for if research takes Tisdall to Wilmington, so does music.  He joined the weeknight jam sessions there hosted by David Bromberg, a Grammy nominee who’s played with George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson.

            From those jam sessions came the collaboration for “Three Men in a Boat.”  “David Bromberg and I both play guitar on the CD and Tyrone Brown plays bass,” Tisdall said.  “Tyrone has recorded and performed with the likes of Grover Washington and Lou Rawls.  I felt honored that they recorded with me.  David is incredibly good.  Tyrone is a legendary jazz performer and composer.”

            Besides work and music, Tisdall manages to find time for swimming and a daily yoga practice.  He also writes poetry and has read a poem from his collection, “How to Hold a Hummingbird,” at a local college.  “I write about nature, love and loss,” Tisdall said.

            Tisdall, who’s divorced, has three children.  “My daughter Rose is 24,” he said, “and she’s attending graduate school at the University of Chicago.  Eamon, 21, is studying history and politics at Temple University.  Joe, my youngest, is 18 and a high school senior.”

            “Joe is also a wonderful musician,” Tisdall said.  “I’ve learned a lot about music from all my children.”  This from a man who has had more than 1,000 students over the years.  “I’m going to continue studying all my life,” Tisdall said.  “You can always find someone who knows something you don’t.”

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  “Three Men in a Boat” is available at Hideaway Music, 8612 Germantown Avenue, and through Tisdall’s websites, and