Daniel Smith: Bassoon Reaching New Places

R.J. DeLuke By

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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
Daniel SmithThe bassoon is an instrument that isn't a total stranger to jazz. Some have doubled on bassoon at times, but even that isn't often. Others have incorporated it into their compositions and arrangements. (See Michael Rabinowitz tear it up as part of the Mingus Orchestra some time). But it's reaching new places and new audiences with the "arrival," as it were, of Daniel Smith, a Brooklyn-born musician who reached acclaim with the instrument in the classical world and is taking it strongly into jazz.

He says, in spite of the accolades he received as a classical musician, learning the intricacies of jazz (an arduous task, he admits), he now enjoys its challenges and its potential more than he does the classical side.

"For me," he says, "it is jazz and improvisation that I find much more rewarding. There is simply no limit as to how high your skills can take you with constant improvement via a lot of hard work and focus. And you are always caught by surprise with new ideas which suddenly pop out and catch you by surprise."

His playing in jazz is still developing, he says, but progress can be seen in the growing audiences for his gigs in the U.S. and Europe that are enjoying the music of his jazz quartet, and can be measured in a pair of recordings Bebop Bassoon (2006) and Swingin' Bassoon (2007) on the Zah Zah label that, between them, cover a wide variety of standards and styles, from Miles and Monk to Basie, Duke, Bird, Dizzy and more. With him is his trio of Martin Bejerano on piano, John Sullivan on bass and Ludwig Afonso on drums. The disks have gotten some attention. Both "are heard world-wide in many countries stretching from North to South America, all of Europe, Asia and as far as Moscow," he says.

His long-appreciated classical work also goes strong. In 2005, composer/arranger Robert Farnon dedicated his final composition to Smith. "Romancing the Phoenix" is a three-movement bassoon concerto for solo amplified bassoon with rhythm section and full symphony orchestra in a jazz-oriented style crossed with symphonic. Warner Chappell recently published the score and parts with Robert Farnon's dedication to "The American virtuoso Daniel Smith" on the title page.

"Robert Farnon was a legendary figure in the world of arranging, orchestration and composing. This bassoon concerto was his very last composition before his untimely death in early 2005. His third symphony was set to be premiered in Edmonton, Canada, and Edinburgh, Scotland, that year. After these premieres, the plan was to follow with premieres of the bassoon concerto, which Farnon himself was going to arrange. His idea was to have a number of premieres worldwide including with Andre Previn in Oslo, the Royal Philharmonic and the Proms in the UK, orchestras in Canada, the USA," says Smith.

He says it appears that a United Kingdom world premiere will be held in 2009, "with two orchestras combining forces ... there will be extensive publicity worldwide about the premiere, followed by what we hope will be premieres in the USA, Canada and throughout Europe." His performances have included other firsts: The American West Coast premiere Gunther Schuller's "Concerto for Contrabassoon and Orchestra," the world premiere of Steve Gray's "Jazz Suite For Bassoon," with the Welsh Chamber Orchestra and solo concerts at New York's Lincoln Center and the Tivoli Concert Hall in Copenhagen, among other prestigious dates.

The achievements are significant. But perhaps even more so in light of the fact that Smith's interest in music wasn't appreciated by his parents. It was stifled. But his interest and talent still rose to the fore. The persistence required to overcome that obstacle served him well. It extended into a keen focus on learning music and various instruments that have vaulted him into a successful and decorated career.

Being pushed away from music caused him to actually forge toward it, he contends. And hearing Benny Goodman as a teenager perhaps cinched his life's direction.

There were "pressures put on me to conform and do something 'normal,' like being an accountant, teacher, dentist, post office worker, whatever. I was a very different sort of child and no one in my family knew what to make of me. My mother was determined to stop me in my tracks when I took up clarinet lessons and took me for an aptitude test," he says. "I did, in fact, score highest for accountancy, but the second highest score was music. My mother felt she was now vindicated and said to the examiner, 'So you do agree that he should be an accountant.' To which the examiner said, 'Well no. He really should be a musician.' Having had a discussion beforehand with him, he gave his professional opinion to my mother with the 'wrong' answer of music—so I was now damned for life."

Daniel SmithSmith was sixteen year old when he saw a New Year's Eve special with the original Benny Goodman trio re-united (Goodman, Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa) on TV. "I was totally mesmerized by the music and felt a powerful urge there and then to learn the instrument that Benny Goodman was playing. I went to a local music store and said I wanted to learn how to play the trumpet. The owner asked me why. I told him I saw a Mr. Goodman playing it on TV. The owner asked: what did his trumpet look like? I said it was long and black, and was then told it was a clarinet and not a trumpet. So much for musical sophistication in my background."

He jumped into music, still with opposition on the home front. "My father was horrified when I went to enroll at the Manhattan School of Music and claimed that my sax teacher—Bill Sheiner, the same teacher who taught Stan Getz one generation earlier—was deliberately trying to ruin my life. One night when practicing in our basement, my father physically dragged me upstairs to look at the TV. On the screen was Elvis Presley jumping around while doing one of his hit tunes. My father yelled, ˜That's a real musician, he makes lots of money.' So much for culture in my upbringing."

"It is interesting how much of the world's cultures value the arts while here in the USA, so much of the population is devoted to making money and materialism," Smith notes. "I have lived in Europe off and on for over twenty years and see very clearly the different values in European societies in regard to having a career in the arts. Hardly anyone thinks you are strange or asks how much money you make or what do you really do for a living. It is an important part of the values and priorities within many societies and artists are well respected and often well compensated for their achievements."

Smith took up extensive musical training on many instruments. He started clarinet at sixteen, then added the saxophone a year later. He took up flute lessons the next year, entered the Manhattan School of Music as a clarinet major, switched in his second year to being a flute major, eventually earning three degrees there. "I studied each and every instrument quite seriously and had some of the best teachers on each of them," he says, including Bill Sheiner, Eddie Meyers and Joe Allard on sax; Bill Sheiner and Leon Russianoff on clarinet; Harold Bennett, John Wummer and Francis Blaisdell on flute; William Polisi, Harold Goltzer, Sherman Walt, Lenny Hindell and Bernie Garfield on bassoon; and Bert Bial and Richard Plaster on contrabassoon.

He even studied the violin, piano and oboe for short periods. He honed skills in all kinds of musical situations on various instruments, show bands and Latin bands, concert bands, Broadway bands, symphony orchestras and more. Once he took up the bassoon, he played a season with the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera Orchestras as a substitute or extra player, two seasons with the New Jersey Symphony, The National Ballet orchestra on tour, four seasons on fellowship with the National Orchestral Society, a fellowship at Tanglewood, The New York Virtuosi Chamber Symphony, and quite a few other orchestras as a free-lance bassoonist or contrabassoonist.

"But everything came very late in life for me in regard to learning music and playing various instruments, especially the bassoon," says Smith.

His teachers and the classical repertoire he heard on recordings or played as a member of various orchestras were his musical influences in the classical realm. "Then once I started to record, the bassoon concertos and music of such as Vivaldi, Gordon Jacob, Elgar, Bach, as well as pieces on bassoon adapted from the music of Scott Joplin, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Mozart, and countless others. And last but not least, several well-known bassoon soloists from various countries."

As for jazz, a friend introduced him to those sounds during his high school days in the Bronx. He heard the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie on Dial and other labels. He went to hear jazz at Birdland and other clubs, using a fake draft card to get in.

"I was first in line at Birdland, and for $1.80, purchased a ticket and sat in the peanut gallery right next to the piano. There I heard so many of the jazz greats. Count Basie's band many times, Stan Getz, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, Dinah Washington, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Cannonball, Coltrane, Zoot Sims, Gerry Mulligan and so many others. This was just about the time I was learning the clarinet, so from my teens onwards, I was not a stranger to jazz," he says.

Daniel Smith

Smith's early jazz idols included Getz, Parker, Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown, Miles, the Basie, Ellington, Woody Herman and other bands, Lee Morgan, Cannonball Adderley and Mulligan. Even when he began to focus on an instrument not associated with jazz, he was undeterred.

For whatever reason, once I got the 'bug,' I never doubted I could do it," says Smith. "But I instinctively knew from the start it would not be easy and with no short cuts, given the difficulties of the bassoon. All my already achieved skills as a virtuoso in classical music were of no help whatsoever when I started to plunge into jazz and improvising. It was only after three or four years of mastering all the jazz scales and chords and learning in stages how to improvise that the technique I already had from before clicked in and joined up with my newly learned jazz skills."

Smith puts Charlie Parker on par with Mozart's musical genius. "Talent and genius are often attained via sheer hard work and dedication, and the same jazz talent might very well have been a fine composer of classical music and vice versa," he says. Which genre is more difficult? Smith doesn't hesitate.

He says it is "several times more difficult to pull off convincing jazz. For instance, the saxophone jumps the octave with a single key and the fingerings mostly stay the same, except for the very top and bottom notes. The clarinet has a register key which makes a jump of a twelfth—again the fingerings remain mostly the same other than being different pitches. With the flute, you jump the octave with the use of the lip while using many of the same fingerings.

"The bassoon is a bit more than a three octave instrument. Once you move upward from the middle-low register, you have multiple problems to deal with. This includes completely different fingerings for many notes in the upper registers, extreme care with diaphragm and breath control to get the higher pitches in tune and passages which require extreme dexterity. Examples range from many of the Vivaldi bassoon concertos, up-tempo pieces of Charlie Parker and Dizzy, and the release of Thelonious Monk's 'Well You Needn't' with its fast-moving, descending chromatic seventh chords. Not for the faint hearted."

Smith's years of study have paid off. But there's more to learn; he best yet to come.

"I just did a concert in England at the Thame Concert Jazz Club with the Jonathan Gee trio filling out my 'Bassoon and Beyond' jazz quartet with wonderful piano, bass and drum accompaniment," he says in December of 2007. "This trio performed many times at Ronnie Scotts in London with the likes of Joe Lovano and Benny Golson, so it was important that I do my best with them. I came well-prepared and was able to do the entire concert from memory with no music stand on stage and never missed a note. My solos were light years beyond my jazz album solos and the evening just got better and better. I attribute this to a lot of hard work, and by leaving nothing to chance in preparing for this concert. The lesson here is that one can attain higher and higher levels in jazz and continually improving with hard work and dedication.

Daniel Smith

"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," Smith says. "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."

His continued wok in jazz appears to take on excitement for this well-studied, accomplished instrumentalist on the cusp of coming into his own.

"There is never a day when I pick up the bassoon and fail to improvise better than the previous day. In fact, were I to redo my jazz albums today, you would hear my improvised solos played on a much higher level. But, as every musician knows, one can only do their very best at any given time, and if the process of improving is a constant quest, then you would expect to be doing improvisations vastly improved, different, and more original as time goes by. As for the public awareness of jazz bassoon, I would bet that in the next year or two it will be accepted widely and viewed as yet another instrument which has a future and a following in jazz," he says.

The following is an edited exchange between Smith and All About Jazz on his jazz recordings, his feelings about the bassoon, which is known for its warm, dark timbre, and other musical topics.

All About Jazz: How did you go about selecting tunes for Bebop Bassoon and The Swingin' Bassoon? Was it favorite songs, or a type of feeling you wanted to express? It almost seems that you guys had so much material, and fun, that you extended it into two discs.

Daniel Smith: It was a somewhat mutual effort. I first met alone with pianist Martin Bejerano. We ran through quite a few pieces and saw which ones seemed to work best. Next came three days of rehearsals at a studio with the full quartet. Again, we discarded pieces which did not work and focused on those that seemed to come together nicely. By the time we arrived at the recording studio, we had twenty-one pieces in all and started to tape them over a period of three days. Halfway through the recording sessions, I was starting to feel a bit insecure about the tapings and suggested we abandon ten or so of the pieces and concentrate on just enough for one album. Martin Bejerano spoke to me and urged me to keep with the original plan and record everything we had prepared and go for two albums from the sessions. Fortunately, I took his [suggestion]. And yes, it was fun recording this music and quite challenging.

About Daniel Smith
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