ARTICLES (Jazz Improvisation on the Bassoon)
British Double Reed Society, Spring 2011


Jazz Improvisation on the Bassoon

In recent years, several instruments not traditionally associated with jazz have come into the picture, including various stringed, brass and woodwinds. Daniel Smith, nominated as finalist in 2008 and 2010 for the prestigious 'Player of the Year' award given by the Jazz Journalists’ Association in their category of 'Instruments Rare in Jazz’, discusses the reasons why the entry of new instruments into jazz is now taking place.

From the start, when jazz, or ‘jass’, as it was called early at the start of the 20th Century, the main instruments used in ragtime, early blues, swing and onto bebop and avant-garde, were the trumpet, trombone, clarinet, percussion, saxophone, bass, guitar and piano. But what about all the remaining instruments which have been around for so many years, and which have been part of classical, pop and other musical genres?... the flute, violin, banjo, tuba, cello, oboe, French horn, harp, even the bagpipes, or an instrument, which at first glance, would not seem adaptable to jazz - the bassoon? Many of these instruments have since made a breakthrough in jazz...the time has now come for this most misunderstood member of the woodwind family to do likewise!

As a bassoonist myself, I have had to work my way through a maze of difficulties over the years to learn how to improvise in a convincing way on this most difficult of instruments. The challenges to overcome were many, including the fact that anything played on the bassoon in jazz, whether a melody or on to serious improvisation, is several times more difficult to achieve than on, for example, a saxophone. Like a violin, the bassoon is a ‘ten year’ instrument …meaning that to achieve the level of a virtuoso requires roughly this amount of time, whereas with steady practice and a good teacher, one can learn to play convincingly the saxophone in a fraction of this time.

So where to begin?

I was already a virtuoso, so to speak, on the instrument when I began to plunge into jazz on the bassoon. All the years of performing with major orchestras and ensembles, recording and performing numerous concertos and recitals, were of no use when making the move into jazz. For starters, the scales and chords utilized in jazz improvisation are not the same as your basic classical language. I had to practice all the permutations involved in jazz scales and chords in every key from the bottom to the top of my instrument for quite a few years…. before even beginning to attempt to improvise.

After roughly three or so years doing this, I finally had this new language in my fingers and mind. At one point, the pain in my right arm became almost unbearable due to using muscles I never used before in classical music. I was almost about to throw in the sponge when miraculously, the new scales and chords became comfortable to execute and the pain went away.

Next were attempts to place the notes of the various chords in the right place above a piano accompaniment, followed by crude attempts to execute musical ideas without getting lost. As time went by, everything got looser and easier to execute, and I eventually felt enough confidence to try out my new skills in public. It was also at this time that the virtuosity I already had achieved in classical music now came into play, and combined with the new skills I had mastered in the jazz idiom, made everything fall into place…technique, style, sound, ideas, and whatever else necessary to become a first rate jazz improviser. I also had to consider how to establish a style on the bassoon, given there are no role models. I found that listening to many of the great saxophone greats and other wind players gave me ideas in developing a style that would sound convincing on the instrument. I was living in London at this time, and with a quartet I formed, eventually felt confident enough to perform at jazz clubs, private functions and music club series. Each of these performances helped pave the way for me to understand what to do, and more important what not to do, insofar as upgrading my improvising skills.

I came back to the USA in 2005, and by this time, had built up enough confidence to start to perform with American players, and who to this very day, I have learned so much from by being exposed to their great talents. I also made the decision to learn everything from memory and found it easier to close my eyes when performing, listen to the chord changes and the band surrounding me, and improvise knowing exactly where I have just came from, where I am in the piece, and where I am headed with whatever idea I am executing. All I need is to know is the starting note and I am off and running. Just by coincidence, I was performing at a jazz club recently and forgot the starting note of a piece. I quickly glanced at the music on the stand of the bass player, saw it was a low F, and off I went without any problems. I suspect this mental process is exactly what a great classical pianist does when performing a concerto or sonata. Once the first note is sounded, everything will follow as the mind has already stored all the information necessary, and the fingers will do what they have to do from that point onwards.

There is obviously a lot more involved in learning how to improvise on the bassoon than in this somewhat short article, but suffice it to say that it can be done. I am not the only bassoonist currently performing in jazz, and I am sure that many more will follow in our footsteps over the coming years. It is not easy to accomplish, but from my own perspective since entering into the jazz world, it is well worth the effort. Like everything else worth achieving in life, it takes a lot of hard work and staying power, but as the saying goes,‘who said life is easy?’.... which can be adapted to ‘who said playing jazz on a bassoon is easy?’ For bassoonists taking the plunge into jazz, hang in there, it will be a roller coaster ride, but there will be a lot of rewards to come!

And last but not least, the bassoon MUST be amplified to be heard above a rhythm section, ensemble or orchestra. There are several ways of this being accomplished, including a small microphone attached to the bocal which leads via a cord to a pre-amp and then onto a full amp and/or house sound system. The late and great saxophone player Illinois Jacquet was also an accomplished bassoonist. Performing at Ronnie Scott’s in London some years ago, Jacquet started to play a piece on bassoon. After a few minutes, he stormed off the bandstand in a rage as it was obvious nobody was listening or paying attention to him. The reason? No one in the audience could hear his non-amplified bassoon above the rhythm section! With a good amp set-up, one can easily be heard above even a full symphony orchestra. I recently performed the world premiere of Robert Farnon’s bassoon concerto in the UK accompanied by a 100 piece orchestra and jazz rhythm section. I actually had to lower the volume of my amp at one point as it was pointed out at the dress rehearsal that the bassoon was too loud!

Daniel Smith






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