Review of Daniel Smith's
'Smokin' Hot Bassoon Blues'

Is the epitome of cool a "smokin' hot bassoon?" In less musical hands, this could be a novelty act gone berserk. But as he has proven over and over, classically trained, jazz inspired Daniel Smith is no trickster -- he's a pioneer taking the bassoon where no artist has dared to go, into the depths of blues, the arc of swing, the mania of bop, the heat of Latin. And now he comes out "smokin' hot" to further explore the blues with serious injections of soul, funk, bop and tropical heat on the new Smokin' Hot Bassoon Blues (Summit), funded via Kickstarter and set for release on February 11th.

For Smith's sixth jazz recording (he's had a prolific career as a classical bassoonist), dedicated to the memory of his late wife Judith, he returns to the general realm of his popular Blue Bassoon, but goes deeper and wider, drawing on such blues-minded innovators as Ellington, Mingus, Phil Woods, Joe Henderson, Ray Charles, Nat Adderley, Horace Silver, Bobby Timmons and Sonny Rollins. The band here also expands Smith's palette of blue --bassist Michael O'Brien and drummer Vince Ector return from Bassoon Goes Latin Jazz!, with young Dutch pianist/arranger Robert Bosscher filling out the rhythm section; guest artists include Latin percussion master Neil Clarke (Randy Weston, Dianne Reeves); versatile guitarist Ron Jackson (Jimmy McGriff, Lonnie Smith); organ grinder Greg Lewis ("Organ Monk"); eclectic violinist Efrat Shapira (Zubin Mehta, Olivia Newton-John); and soulful vocalist Frank Senior (Abbey Lincoln, Kenny Barron)--the first vocalist to work with Daniel Smith.

Smith and company lead off with Jimmy Forrest's "Night Train," most famously and divergently covered by Oscar Peterson and James Brown, and the band here honors both with strong swing and an energy that pulls toward the dance floor. In some odd way the bassoon here sounds like a tipsy B-3, while the violin adds squeals of high brass. Smith fully covers the surprisingly wide range of the bassoon, while guitar and electric bass solos further glorify the track, O'Brien almost echoing the depths of the bassoon. "Hummin,'" one of the less familiar tunes in Nat Adderley's book, gets an almost marching cadence as it opens with a mornful bassoon. At about 2 minutes in, the mood shifts toward sunshine with stronger statements from Bosscher's piano and higher register comments from Smith, then Jackson, with O'Brien's electric bass taking the most upbeat, in-your-face passage.

On "Better Get Hit In Your Soul," Obrien switches to acoustic bass to open what may be the bluesiest and most joyous of the popular Mingus canon. Jackson takes off on a tough and tumble solo which Smith answers with his own acrobatics, slip-sliding along as he lays the foundation for a furious, knee-deep solo from Bosscher. Shapira duels with Smith, creating wide and glorious harmonies--almost "Copland meets Mingus!"

It's the real B-3 on "Back at the Chicken Shack," with Greg Lewis in his element on the great burner from Jimmy Smith. Bassoon and B-3 are natural confederates, and Smith answers Lewis with as much salt and sass as you can draw from a bassoon --which apparently is a lot. Sonny Rollins' "Blue Seven" starts off with a dark bouncing solo from O'Brien. While the bassoon doesn't replace Rollins sax, Smith offers an alternative experience, lighter yet deeper and surprisingly agile, setting up a slippery piano solo from Bosscher and a smoldering bass/drum exchange.

The violin adds a touch of gypsy drama to Horace Silver's "Se�or Blues," yielding a "Caravan" feel as well as a bit of East European angst that continues through Bosscher's solo, the tropical rhythm underscored by percussion. On Bobby Timmons' "Moanin', Smith's opening foray into the familiar theme surely sounds as Timmons intended it -- woeful and soulful. Ron Jackson has a field day, his six strings conversing through multiple chorus, while Shapira again adds a gypsy touch, and Bosscher delivers a Dutch treat.

Vocalist Frank Senior appears on two tracks saluting the great Ray Charles. "What'd I Say" melds soul and salsa, enhanced by Clarke's percussion and Bosscher's montuno-laden keys. Smith's bassoon is more red hot than blue cool here. Ector joins Clarke in a percussive rumble over O'Brien's bassline. "Hallelujah I Love Her So" is graced by Senior's slight restraint. There's no restraint in Smith's chorus, the bassoon adding bubble and squeak to funky soul, O'Brien's arco turn one of the solo highlights of the album. (I'm surprised he didn't saw the bass in half.)

Two short tracks (under three minutes each) include the Ellington classic "C-Jam Blues," highlighting Greg Lewis setting a quick pace in cahoots with O'Brien, and Phil Woods' tribute to Eddie Jefferson, "Eddie's Blues," with bassoon and violin creating a vocalese-style romp.

Joe Henderson's "Mamacita" closes the album, his original horn parts transformed into a freewheeling fest for bassoon, violin and guitar, while O'Brien takes the Latin rhythms (buoyed by Clarke's arsenal) on a joy ride. As he has done throughout, Smith makes you forget he is swinging away on an unwieldy instrument -- in his hands, the bassoon seems as easily maneuvered (physically and muscially) as a piccolo.

The material of Smokin' Hot Bassoon Blues seems more challenging than Smith's previous jazz projects, but it's a challenge Smith and ensemble clearly relish and master most delightfully.

� Andrea Canter, Jazz Police