ARTICLES (Jazzink)
Published on Jazzink website March, 2009


Following the Magic: An Interview With Daniel Smith

“Simultaneously dubbed the “Gerry Mulligan of the Bassoon” in jazz circles and the “Rampal of the Bassoon” in the classical realm, Daniel Smith is a versatile pioneer when it comes to this great double reed. With recordings and performances that stretch from Baroque to ragtime to bop, Smith has turned the bassoon repertoire upside-down and inside-out, resulting in a much greater appreciation of this unique and difficult-to-master instrument. Yet his early interest in music was met with considerable family opposition; his naivete led him to seek out a trumpet which he mistook for Benny Goodman’s clarinet; and his early efforts to improvise on bassoon created serious physical problems. The following interview with JazzINK provides some insight into the drive and commitment that led Daniel Smith to overcome a number of obstacles, not the least of which was the bassoon itself.”


Did you grow up with any exposure to music within your family?

“There was some [music] on the radio with the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on Sundays. As a child [in The Bronx] I sat mesmerized listening to Paul Lavalle’s Band of America concerts on the radio; recordings such as Rusty in Orchestraville, and even the music to Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I can remember being transfixed by these sounds, even if I did not understand why or what they represented.”


What drew you to music as a career choice?

“At age 16, I was already looking forward to being an artist and had attended Industrial Arts High School in NYC and also, on the weekends, the Art Student's League. I had no awareness of anything in music, and it was New Year's Eve when I was watching a special on TV, which was a show re-uniting the original Benny Goodman trio. I sat there listening to the music in a state which to this day I still can't describe. It was as if something magical was taking place and I was in a spell. I went to a music studio where my cousin was studying drums and asked to take trumpet lessons. The director of the studio asked me why I wanted to play the trumpet. I told him that I had seen a Mr. Goodman playing trumpet on TV and this was the reason. He asked me to describe the “trumpet” of Mr. Goodman. I told him it was long and black....and the rest is history, as they say.”


You were very persistent in your pursuit of music despite lack of support at home. Did your parents ever come around to supporting your career choice?

“No, they never did support me, but more to the point, never understood me. I was caught in a cultural divide coming from a family where bourgeois values were the norm and being 'different' was frightening to them. My parents’ wish was for me to be an accountant or, if this failed, at least a school teacher. Had I been born into a different society, such as in many European countries where the arts are considered part of everyday life, things would have been very different. But even today... it is considered OK for a child who has an urge to paint or dance, but not for a grown adult...’

“Coming from the Depression, my parents, like many of their generation, were scarred for life and afraid of questioning or thinking differently from what was then considered ‘normal.’ My father would often go into a rage when I practiced my saxophone and told me that if anyone asked him if he had a son, he would tell them I did not exist. At one point, he grabbed me by the arm and dragged me to the TV where Elvis Presley was singing and playing his guitar. 'That’s a real musician.’ he shouted, ‘He makes lots of money!’ This at a time when I was working full time during the day, attending night college, and trying to take music lessons in-between.

“My decision to attend the Manhattan School of Music [initially to study clarinet] was met with very fierce opposition and created some life-long traumas. But somehow I managed to persist, thanks to the help of some other people including my (later) wife and her parents who helped me to not give in. 'Twas not fun, but obviously if someone has a particular “bent” in life, this is who they are and there will always be other people trying to break you or make you conform to what they think is right for you. As the poet e. e. cummings said, to paraphrase here, “the hardest thing in life is to prevent other people trying to stop you from being the person you were meant to be.” I suspect there are a lot of such experiences with those in the arts who know this in a very personal way, especially in this particular society.”


Now that you have been promoting the bassoon as a jazz instrument for a while, do you see more jazz musicians interested in the bassoon or other “unusual” woodwinds? Are more classical bassoonists turning to jazz as a sideline? Or is the instrument so difficult that it will always remain a rarity?

“Yes and no is my immediate answer. Yes that many more will try over the next years. No in that the instrument itself is several times harder to master than say a saxophone. You can become a decent sax player with a lot of hard work and talent in more-or-less a year or two, but the bassoon is like a violin, considered a “ten-year instrument” to really master and become a virtuoso. Any jazz passage you hear played on a bassoon is several times harder to execute than on a saxophone, whether the melody or for sure with the art of improvisation. When I started to delve heavily into jazz, I spent 2-3 years mastering all the jazz scales and chords from top to bottom of the instrument and in all twelve keys before I even tried to improvise.

“Due to the radical differences in jazz scales and chords as compared to those in classical music, my arms became very sore and stiff since I was using muscles I had never used before. Coming from a position of already having recorded many classical albums ranging from concertos to crossover, all those skills were of no use in the jazz idiom for quite some time. And when I thought that I was damaging my right arm to the point of a serious medical problem, a breakthrough occurred, and ever since then, the fingers and mind seem to have a life of their own and a natural flow happens, and always it gets better and easier to do. Oliver Sacks is a fan of mine and when we met at his office one day, he tried to figure out what was going on in my mind when improvising, since I did not (and still do not) have a clue. He finally gave up and said to me, “Just keep doing what you are doing and don't even think about it.”


Of the great sax and clarinet players, whose style and skills would have been most compatible with the bassoon?

“Immediately, Stan Getz and Charlie Parker come to mind, plus Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon and possibly others such as Buddy De Franco and earlier Benny Goodman. To this I have to add on Clifford Brown, who in my opinion was the greatest jazz trumpet player ever. I once heard him play at the old Basin Street East with Max Roach. Even before reaching the stage, I remember hearing him warm up from the wings and could not believe what I was hearing. He had it all: emotion, sensitivity, technique, wit, creativity and much more. Basically the mid-range tenor sax sound is the most compatible with that of the bassoon although the bassoon has a much wider range of three and a half octaves.”


Are you ever tempted to try the contrabassoon with some jazz tunes? Have you ever considered the larger saxophones?

“Interesting question. I was a virtuoso on the contrabassoon and in fact premiered Gunther Schuller's contrabassoon concerto in its USA West Coast premiere with the Santa Cruz Symphony. I also played contra off and on with the NY Philharmonic, New Jersey Symphony, etc. But as for jazz, I don't think it would make any sense. There are some woodwinds which I believe can't effectively capture the spirit or jazz due to their range and/or particular sound. Along with the contrabassoon, I would include the piccolo and oboe. The problem also includes the ability to bend and inflect notes and passages in a convincing manner along with the range problem.”

“As for the larger saxophones, I played all the sax chairs in many show bands, Latin bands, combos and situations over the years before devoting my career to the bassoon. I even played bass saxophone in a Broadway pit band for a Mitch Miller show and was hired to play the baritone sax/flute chair with Johnny Richard's band at Birdland. Other players in the sax section I remember were Charlie Mariano and Frank Foster. I rehearsed with his band but backed out of the engagement at the last minute after being hired to play bassoon with the pit band at the Stratford Shakespeare Theater in Connecticut. How's this for something different? I played, with the NY Philharmonic, the highest and lowest of the woodwinds on different occasions! This would be one season when I subbed on contrabassoon and another time when I joined the flute section on piccolo when the West Point Band (where I was a member at that time) joined forces to perform Berlioz' “Symphonie e Funebre.”


What inspires your music (as a composer and as a performer)?

“I assume, like most people who improvise, there is more at work than meets the eye as the saying goes. Perhaps this quote from an essay of Oliver Sacks called “Speed” might give some clue or insight, and I don't mean just in my own case: “The dazzling performance of chess masters, lightening speed calculators, musical improvisers, and other virtuosos may have less to do with basic neural speed than with the vast range or knowledge, memorized patterns and strategies, and hugely sophisticated skills they call upon.'”

“I can see within this observation some of the things that seem to go on in my mind within a micro second. Stan Getz referred to this as being in an “Alpha state.” You are completely “out” of yourself and the brain seems to be working in tandem with your fingers to spin out musical ideas as if time were standing still, and whatever comes to mind can easily be passed on to the fingers and then out of the instrument. To the listener, it is a dazzling series of musical ideas, but to the person improvising, it is just like daydreaming and coming up with concepts and ideas in slow motion. As for Sack's referring to a “vast range of knowledge, memorized patterns and strategies,” I am sure this is what is doing in my case. I have found of late that even if I have not touched the instrument in many days, or even weeks if things are hectic with other priorities, it is as if I never put down the bassoon, and everything I did earlier is immediately there in my mind and now at an even higher level since all the older “memorized patterns and strategies” are now solidly in place and can be used as a base to move further upwards to build upon. This is the reason why, when I sat down with Oliver Sacks to discuss what is going on, he advised me to not even bother to think about it anymore but just do it!”

“As for the ideas incorporated within this process, I would guess much of the music I heard by the likes of Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, etc. earlier in life is somehow embedded in my subconscious, and if the brain says to try to do something in a different style, there is an instant switch to try to utilize a different use of space, double-time passages, bending of pitches and inflections, and so forth as the next idea comes into play. It is indeed a great mystery. As for being a “composer,” I am not technically a trained composer but I suspect spinning out ideas when improvising could fall into this category.”


How do you interact with a live audience—how do you respond musically? When you are recording in a studio, how do you compensate for that missing element (of a live audience)?

“I love playing for a live audience, the more the merrier! Like most people who play jazz, I can feel the external input from the audience and my playing adjusts to this feeling. When recording in a studio, and I have done a lot of this, first in classical and now in jazz, it is a very different situation. You have to work extra hard to bring forth good solos as you seem to be self-criticizing as you go along, which is not as free a feeling as at a live performance. I suspect this is the subconscious saying to itself that what is happening will be heard by a huge amount of people around the world and subject to critical comments if not done well, and it better be good! Which is why someone like Sonny Rollins is never happy with what he has recorded, you know you can do something better if given another opportunity, even if this is only in your mind. And as Wynton Marsalis said, “In classical music you are a re-creator of music, while in jazz, you are a creator of music.” Which, although unseen by the listener, puts a bit more pressure on the person doing the playing in the jazz idiom.”


Tell me about Blue Bassoon—why the blues, why these tunes? (Are these tunes you particularly like or tunes that you feel are particularly compatible with the bassoon?)

“After recording Bebop Bassoon and The Swingin' Bassoon, both which received wonderful reviews and airplay, I noticed that my jazz skills had taken a huge leap upwards and thought the time would be perfect to bring out another album to display my new style and approach. So what could be more appropriate than an all-blues album to do this? I spent months trying out and discarding many pieces and trying to find a perfect combination of blues pieces which would be different from each other and cover a wide range of styles, tempos and feelings. Added to this along the way was a wonderful suggestion from Howard Mandel, the president of the Jazz Journalists Association, to consider adding on some early blues pieces to spread out even more the styles covered. Through a series of remarkable coincidences, I was able to get Bob Dylan's guitarist, Larry Campbell, to join me in two pieces by B.B. King and Robert Johnson.”


Among currently performing jazz artists, is there anyone you would particularly like to work with?

“Anyone who has a hard driving, straight-ahead style would really interest me. I recently heard the great Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu play in Germany and was blown away by what he did. I have since made contact with him and asked if a collaboration using jazz bassoon might interest him. Also, at one time, Claude Bolling contacted me in regard to one of those “Jazz Suite” projects like he did with Jean-Pierre Rampal on flute. Unfortunately nothing ever came of it since I believe those jazz suite albums with flute, cello, orchestra, etc. had run their commercial course by then.”


Of the great jazz composers, whose music is most conducive to the bassoon, or the most difficult? Any particular composer whose material you would like to tackle in the near future?

“As you know, I recorded the entire 37 Vivaldi Bassoon Concertos and, for me, this is about as good as it gets in classical music. I remember thinking to myself as I was playing these concerti with the English Chamber Orchestra, and later the Zagreb Soloists, how similar in feeling to jazz was much of the material. The slow movements could have been an emotional counterpoint to a Monk blues piece and some of the fast movements could be compared to an exciting piece by the Count Basie band. Other wonderful music would include J. C. Bach and several others from the Baroque and later periods.

“As for jazz composers, I have an open mind and would love to premiere interesting and swinging works. In the UK in September, I will perform the world premiere of Robert Farnon's jazz-oriented bassoon concerto with the Chandos Symphony Orchestra. Also there’s the “Jazz Suite for Bassoon and Orchestra” by British composer Steve Gray. I did this piece in public twice with the Welsh Chamber Orchestra, first at a music festival in Wales and then a second time in the main concert hall in Cardiff. A few other jazz composers have approached me over the years but none of these came to fruition. In the UK, Julian Joseph was going to compose an original piece for me with his group for the BBC, but this ran into a political decision by the powers that be which had nothing to do with the music and never was done.”


Beyond the basic quartet or trio format, are there some configurations or combinations of instruments you would like to work with as a jazz ensemble?

“Off the top of my head, simply to add another horn alongside the bassoon. Maybe tenor sax or trumpet. This would help greatly with the “heads” by providing harmony and counterpoint to the repertoire which I perform.” •

- Andrea Canter






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