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Daniel Smith: Bassoon Reaching New Places

By Published: February 5, 2008

Daniel SmithAAJ: How do you feel about the band and how they jelled and sounded with you?

DS: Martin Bejerano and John Sullivan were members of Roy Haynes' band and Ludwig Afonso went on the road with Spyro Gyra after we did the sessions, so I was indeed in some very good company. Besides being a great jazz pianist, Martin was able to help me put together interesting and appealing approaches to each musical selection. John Sullivan was a Rock of Gibraltar with his solid bass lines and Ludwig Afonso a very creative and tasteful drummer. I have had discussions already with Martin about future jazz projects and would like to use these same players for future albums.

AAJ: What led to the bassoon?

DS: It was a period late in the Vietnam war era and the draft was still in effect. I had just graduated Columbia University and was newly married. Harold Bennett, my flute teacher at the time, informed me that there would soon be a flute/piccolo opening in the West Point Band where a former student of his was about to finish his military service in the Army's special services and would keep me out of Vietnam with a three-year enlistment. I auditioned and was appointed solo piccolo and flute with the band.

While in the military, my wife became pregnant and we had our first child. I was concerned that upon being discharged from the military, I would need to make a living to support my family. The idea thus came to me of learning the bassoon so as to be a doubler, which would enable me to get into Broadway show bands and studio work after returning to civilian life. And so I started lessons at age twenty-five with one of the band's bassoonists, Christopher Weait. One thing led to another, but it would still be some years before I started to work my way toward being a soloist on the instrument.

AAJ: What is it about the instrument that attracted you, still attracts you?

DS: I hoped it would enable me to make a living doing studio and show work. Then came the sheer challenge of playing the instrument. The bassoon is one of those instruments, along the violin, cello and others, that are considered ten-year instruments, meaning roughly this length of time to become a complete master or virtuoso. I really enjoyed the step-by-step progress I was making and found it much more rewarding than any of the other instruments I had mastered.

AAJ: How important is the sound you get and how do you strive for that?

DS: Apparently quite important from all the reviews and feedback I have received over the years. First with classical and crossover recordings and performances, and now in an even bigger and more important way with jazz bassoon. I would imagine that having played the flute, clarinet, saxophone, and perhaps a bit of violin, I combined together everything. I incorporate various sound concepts from all these other instruments and added them to my traditional bassoon conservatory/classical training.

I don't have a clue why my sound is what it is. Nearly all the reviews for my recordings, whether classical, jazz, or crossover, are quite outstanding, and for the negative remaining, they simply do not like what I do—whether classical or jazz. As for live performances, I always get wonderful audience reaction and write-ups, so I must be doing something right.

AAJ: Was it easier for acceptance of the bassoon in the classical world?

DS: Probably, yes. I stepped into the role of a classical bassoon soloist in stages, first doing some concertos with semi-professional orchestras, then onto more established ones, concertos with orchestras in Europe, then making my first two concerto albums using members of the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera orchestras, then a big leap upward with five concerto albums with the English Chamber Orchestra, three others with the Zagreb Soloists, crossover albums with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and The Caraveggio Ensemble, a recital album with Roger Vignoles, an album of music for Bassoon and String Quartet with England's Coull Quartet, etc.

So by the time I got into jazz, all this was already in place and I guess you could say I was considered a virtuoso by many. Several of my classical albums have won awards along the way. My five-CD set of the complete Vivaldi bassoon concertos is a best seller with the Musical Heritage Society and won an award as Best Concerto Album of the Year, my two crossover albums were a first in this area, and there were several other pioneering achievements on the instrument before moving on to jazz albums.

Daniel SmithAAJ: What kind of reactions did you get when you started carrying it over into jazz?

DS: The main reason I got into jazz was due to a piece of music entitled "Jazz Suite for Bassoon and Orchestra," written for me by the English composer and pianist Steve Gray, then a member of the pop-rock group Sky, led by guitarist John Williams. Steve included improvisation spots in the movements, which I worked up and then wrote out. But by doing this, I had seriously caught the jazz bug and decided then and there that I wanted to do it right from that point on. I proceeded to set myself a long-range goal to master the idiom of improvisation and jazz on the bassoon. It was not easy at first, but I just kept plugging away. I worked hard over the next years with many hours of concentrated practice to learn and master this very difficult craft on an instrument several times harder than saxophone and many other instruments.

I learned all the jazz scales and chords in every key and from bottom to top of the bassoon while using a metronome to increase the speeds gradually. Next came multiple patterns using these scales and chords. I then purchased some Jamey Aebersold CDs and learned to place the scales and chords in the right places above the piano, bass and drums, and to learn to hear the chord quality and where the progressions were going.

Then came primitive attempts at improvising. They probably sounded awful and I invited people to hear what I was doing while playing along with the Aebersold tracks. Everyone was very polite and supportive saying that I sounded great, but I seriously doubt they were being truthful. Due to the extreme strain of trying to force musical ideas using very different sort of scales, chords along with a technique quite different from classical music, my right arm started to get very sore and stiff. I eventually reached the point of believing my arm would be permanently damaged from all this.

All of a sudden, a sort of miracle happened! Ideas started to flow and my fingers simply executed what I was hearing in my head. The problem with my arm went away and never came back, while my playing of jazz got easier and smoother as time went by. The next step was to start performing live in a jazz quartet setting at private parties, jazz clubs, music clubs, music festivals, etc. These were mostly in the UK, where I was living at the time. By trial and error, I started to understand what was required to play convincing jazz on the bassoon and went through many learning plateaus and various shifts upward in regard to reaching higher and more creative levels of improvising...and feeling more and more confident along the way.

As for "acceptance" of the instrument playing jazz, this happened immediately with audiences who heard me in live settings. However, early on, a well-known British bassoonist who knew me, said that it would be "dangerous for my career" if I played jazz in the UK. In hindsight, I now understand what he was hinting at. To this very day, there are classically trained bassoonists who focus on the accuracy of pitches and zero in on my bending of notes when I play jazz. I do this on purpose as any jazz saxophonist would do, to capture the essence of a phrase within a melody or an improvised solo, otherwise the music would be stiff, formal, and not swing. For better or worse, I suspect such players may never get it. If I did not do this while performing jazz on the bassoon, and as Duke Ellington said, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing," the music would be "correct" and perfectly in tune, but would come across as dull and uninteresting.

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