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Daniel Smith: Bassoon Reaching New Places

By Published: February 5, 2008

Daniel SmithAAJ: What do you like about improvisation, that is stressed more in jazz? What attracts you to jazz?

DS: When I do a recital for instance, I might be playing a particular piece by Edward Elgar or Mozart which I have performed dozens and dozens of times over the years. How much more can I add on to the music? As Wynton Marsalis once said: in classical music you are a re-creator, in jazz you are a creator. I recorded several albums in London with the English Chamber Orchestra around the same time Marsalis was recording his classical albums with the same orchestra. I saw how he made the jump back and forth from classical to jazz and vice versa, so I knew the field was wide open for someone to do this on bassoon.

As for the actual art of improvising, I find it fascinating and a constant source of amazement to me. I really don't have a clue as to how my fingers go down on the correct keys to execute a musical idea which I am hearing in my head many measures before actually playing it. I am currently in touch with Oliver Sacks who is publicizing his new book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (Knopf, 2007). I hope to discuss with him how the mind works in the art of improvising. Maybe I will understand how this happens. Maybe not. Meanwhile, I know that every time I pick up the instrument, something different and better will come out than the previous day and I can count on this happening whether practicing or on stage at a live performance.

[According to Smith, Sacks plans to start work on a follow-up book with his discussions with the author included.]

AAJ: Are there still some prejudices about the instrument in jazz? Or some snickers when you tell people?

DS: Very little if any at all. Other than those classically trained bassoonists who basically don't get it and are shocked by the bending and sliding of pitches within jazz phrases, everyone has gone for it in a very big way—critics, jazz disc jockeys and audiences everywhere. The only reference to a "snicker" actually was in a recent review of my last jazz album, The Swingin' Bassoon. The reviewer did anticipate it would be something strange to hear and made a remark that at first he thought he read "The Swingin' Baboon" on the CD title. He then went on to praise the album in the highest terms with some wonderful comments about my playing and the ensemble.

AAJ: How do you feel it's been accepted so far, with your proliferation of recordings and appearances?

DS: Beyond my wildest dreams. "Killer Joe," from Bebop Bassoon, is now the sixth ranked all-time download with All About Jazz and had over 10,000 downloads in 2006 alone. Both this album and The Swingin' Bassoon are heard world-wide in many countries stretching from North to South America, all of Europe, Asia and as far as Moscow. Many of these countries are where I have agents representing me and where we expect many engagements at festivals, jazz clubs and concert series from 2008 onwards. Quite a few are now being arranged and with further queries coming in from presenters about having me on their series.

Daniel SmithAAJ: Do you see yourself as a pioneer on the instrument?

DS: I would suppose so. I seem to be all over the Internet, heard on In-flight with many airlines, on classical and jazz radio, there are quite a few interviews and articles on my career in the media, and I am frequently contacted by bassoonists from many countries who know of me. It would be naive to think that everyone would admire or like what I do ... I just keep trying to improve my skills and if someone does not like what I am doing, that's fine with me, everyone is entitled to their opinion.

AAJ: How do you go from classical to jazz...back and forth...with such apparent ease?

DS: I have to wear two hats, as the expression goes. This takes place not only in the way I change styles and approaches in both genres, but also in concerts where I have to perform and cover both classical and jazz. The first half of these split classical/jazz concerts features acoustical bassoon with piano in a recital format. After the interval, I am joined on stage by a jazz rhythm section of piano, bass and drums. Sometimes I have a pianist who can cover both classical to jazz, other times I use two different pianists—a classical accompanist for the first half and then a jazz trio with its own pianist for the second half. I also switch from acoustical bassoon for the classical part to an amplified bassoon for the jazz segment. Keeps you on your toes.

AAJ: Is there a different mind set for each?

DS: Yes, and in the case of jazz, throwing all caution to the wind. If you bend notes to get an effect in a jazz phrase, the purists might say you are out of tune. The jazz listener or critic might say the opposite—that you did not bend the notes enough in comparison to what a saxophonist does. By trial and error and instinct, you eventually know just how much you want to bend a pitch, throw in a glissando, maybe make a pitch move up or down as you hold it to get an effect, as well as many other things you discover along the way to make a particular jazz tune come to life on the bassoon.

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