(Take Five,

Take Five with jazz bassoonist Daniel Smith, an interview conducted by Paul J. Youngman, December 2007.

I have come across a treasure chest of classical jazz standards by some of the biggest names in jazz. These pieces are presented in a most interesting, different, and unusual way by jazz bassoonist Daniel Smith. He interprets these jazz standards in his very own way on his instrument of choice the bassoon, and which he plays with exacting technique and expressive passion.

Vinilemania: What does jazz mean to Daniel Smith?

Daniel Smith: I wasn't expecting that question, but it’s a good one. When I was growing up in New York City, and when I was about 16 years old, a friend introduced me to recordings of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Shortly afterwards, I started going to jazz clubs and concerts to hear jazz in person and also built up quite a large collection of jazz recordings. Now many years later, and with this earlier exposure to jazz which I remember so well, performing jazz for me nowadays is much more of a challenge than classical music, even though I have done quite a lot in that area with many recordings and live performances. Wynton Marsalis once said, “When you play classical music you are a re-creator, when you play jazz you are a creator.” That is the essence of what it means to me...taking a piece of music, capturing the style, weather bebop, swing or whatever, and then creating interesting, exciting, and innovative new improvisations based on that particular piece. This is the heart and soul of jazz for me.

Vinilemania: Well I think you did that on your newly released album, Bebop Bassoon (2007 Zah Zah Records), you made some very nice statements on the tunes that you picked. The tunes are great, some excellent picks. When you decided to explore jazz, did you have a plan, was it going to be one CD, two CDs?

Daniel Smith: It was pretty open ended and with three steps along the way. First I met with pianist Martin Bejerano and we went over many pieces with just piano and bassoon to see how they fit. The next step involved the full quartet of John Sullivan on bass, Ludwig Afonso on drums, Martin on piano, and myself. We rehearsed for three days in a studio in Manhattan where we tried out those pieces Martin and I had chosen earlier, eliminating a few more that did not seem to work, and perfecting those that sounded good within the context of a bassoon-led jazz quartet. Next step was three days of taping at a recording studio about 20 pieces we had prepared with the quartet. After the first day of recording, I was concerned about the artistic level of what we had done and felt we could do better if we focused on fewer tunes over the remaining days of taping. Fortunately, Martin Bejerano talked me out of this. He urged me to hold firm, that it would be better to record all the pieces we prepared, and that at the end of the three days of recording, we would have enough material for two CDs instead of only one. I'm very glad I listened to him since we ended up with 21 pieces spread out over the two albums eventually released.

Vinilemania: When did this take place?

Daniel Smith: The sessions were recorded early in 2004 at a studio in Brooklyn, NY.

Vinilemania: So 'Bebop Bassoon' was the first CD of the two that came out of the recording sessions and which was released it in 2006.

Daniel Smith: Yes that’s correct. Everything was recorded in 2004 and then the two albums released at later dates on the Zah Zah label based in Switzerland....'Bebop Bassoon' in 2006 and 'The Swingin' Bassoon' in 2007.

Vinilemania: Right that’s great. I noticed another jazz album while browsing on your website, Baroque Jazz, with Martin Drew, one of Oscar Peterson’s drummers. What was that all about?

Daniel Smith: I had been living in London off and on for almost twenty years. 'Baroque Jazz' was a project I collaborated on with Bruce Boardman, a pianist I was performing with at that time in the UK. We went into a studio with a quartet of piano, bass and drums to record samples from what would have been a full album of similar material to send to various record companies for consideration. The idea for this project came from Bruce Boardman who was a big fan of Jacques Loussier, the French jazz pianist who had several best selling albums featuring jazz versions of classical pieces. By luck, Martin Drew, Oscar Peterson's drummer, was asked if he wanted to be involved. He was enthused about the project and became part of the quartet I used for the recording sessions. We arranged several sample pieces, not so much from an improvisational standpoint, but rather with a jazz feel built around Baroque pieces by such composers as Vivaldi, Bach, Henry Purcell and William. Byrd. The results came out very well, but unfortunately, we did not find a company for a commercial release.. I have this sampler posted on my website, and hopefully, some day it will see the light of day with a commercial release as we had planned.

Vinilemania: Oh yeah, that sounds like it would be a great idea; I think it would be really good. There was one other that I came across, Jazz Suite for Bassoon; tell us a little about this one?

Daniel Smith: This project was the reason I started to get serious about learning how to improvise on the bassoon. This piece was written for me by Steve Gray, a well known British composer, pianist, and orchestrator who was at that time a member of the crossover group SKY led by guitarist John Williams. We met at my flat in London and came up with the idea of doing an original piece for bassoon and chamber orchestra in a jazz setting, which resulted in 'Jazz Suite for Bassoon and Orchestra.' I eventually did two performances of "Jazz Suite for Bassoon' in Wales with the Welsh Chamber Orchestra and also later in a combo version at Rockefeller University in New York City. Since the piece had places in it involving improvisation, I worked up several decent solos and wrote them out for the live performances and the recording which we made in a London studio. Keep in mind that over the years I had moved on from saxophone, clarinet and flute, as well as other instruments, until eventually the bassoon became my instrument of choice, but I was not a jazz player on the bassoon yet. 'Jazz Suite for Bassoon' pushed and inspired me to consider the idea of learning how to do this correctly...which I then plunged into over the next several years and with a lot of hard work to accomplish this goal.

Vinilemania: I can imagine that it is tough, the instrument just looks tough. So is it as tough as it looks?

Daniel Smith: It definitely is! And very interesting that you noticed and brought this subject up. The average listener, and even many musicians and critics, are not aware that anything played on the bassoon, compared to a saxophone for instance (I can say this because I played and studied all the woodwinds) is several times harder to execute, whether just the melody and especially more so with improvising. A saxophone is an instrument that you can play decently in one year of study if you have some talent and do a lot of hard work. The bassoon is more in the category of a violin or cello in that it can take a decade to really master. Obviously therefore, what is played on the bassoon in the jazz idiom is several times harder than on most traditional jazz instruments as just explained. To simply state, as some critics have said, that musicians prefer to play jazz on the saxophone to the bassoon, is missing the point. The extreme difficulty of playing jazz on the bassoon helps explains why there are so few jazz bassoonists in the world, and that what a listener is hearing, is much more difficult than if played on a saxophone, clarinet, flute, etc.

Vinilemania: I got that sense fairly quickly, that it was a tough instrument, and was very impressed with the sound and range of sounds that you produce. The range in the high register especially which I would not have expected.

Daniel Smith: Are you a musician by the way?

Vinilemania: I am a former drummer. (Laughs)

Daniel Smith: Ah okay! (Laughs) I have a friend in London, and every time we get together to talk about music, he looks at me and says, “I'm not a musician, I’m a drummer”

(Both laugh.)

Daniel Smith: But seriously, the instrument has a range of about three and a half octaves. It goes down very low and up very high.

Vinilemania: That’s impressive! Now getting to the point of mastering it, I guess that requires those ten years of working on it, so that you are able to hit the highs and lows smoothly?

Daniel Smith: Absolutely!

Vinilemania: I'm reminded very much of Gerry Mulligan. The sound you are coming up with made me feel the need to put on a couple of his CD’s, and I thought wow, this cat’s really got a baritone saxophone thing happening here, but he’s got more range available to him.

Daniel Smith: That’s very astute of you. In England, a reviewer once described me as “The Gerry Mulligan of the bassoon.” When I perform jazz on the instrument, I don't really know what I sound like to the listener. I'm the person performing, but it’s very subjective as to what listeners make of what I am doing. Everyone who hears me seems to hear something different; most listeners and critics really like what I do, some don't quite understand it, and in a few cases hate it. When I play jazz on the instrument, I'm thinking more like a tenor sax player rather than a baritone sax player, even though it comes out sounding lower and which explains why the analogy is made with Gerry Mulligan's baritone sax.

Vinilemania: Excellent, that’s a nice visualization! As far as your sound and style, you mentioned Charlie Parker as an influence. Coming up through New York you really were surrounded by a state of Jazz, it’s the jazz capital of the world I suppose, what other influences do you have - on your short list?

Daniel Smith: This goes back to when I first started music, starting very late in life when I was a senior in high school. I studied first clarinet, then saxophone with Bill Sheiner in the Bronx, the same teacher who taught Stan Getz a generation before me. I was young, about sixteen or seventeen at the time, so everything I learned at that time were the basics. I started listening to Stan Getz's albums and also saw him play a few times in person. I would say that he was my first real influence in terms of a jazz instrument. He was a musical genius as everyone knows, with a photographic memory, perfect pitch, and a virtuoso technique. I also listened to Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, other saxophone players, and several trumpet players as well,...Clifford Brown comes to mind. I try not to copy anybody though, I listen to various players and try to incorporate elements of what they do in my own style. By the way, I wound up eventually with a degree on flute and took up the bassoon later when I was in the West Point Band playing solo piccolo and flute....this was at the age of 25.

Vinilemania: Trying to take from the best and make it their own, that’s a good guide for all players. You have a very diverse sound, you have some low growls and some high squeaks and squawks, are you thinking of mixing it up a bit, is this a conscious thing?

Daniel Smith: Well to tell you the truth, I really don't understand fully how I am able to improvise on the bassoon, nor do I know what I sound like to others as already mentioned.. What I will say next should interest you quite a bit in regard to this question. I assume you are aware of Oliver Sacks, the author and world famous neurologist who wrote among many other books 'Awakenings' , made later into a movie starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro. I recently read his latest best seller, “Musicophilia”, in which he discusses the effect of music on people, ranging from people considered normal, to extreme cases where Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and amnesia are involved. He shows how music can reach people with such conditions where other therapeutic techniques fail, and how the mind plays it's role in this . But I also noticed that he never covered what goes on in the mind when someone is improvising or creating new musical ideas instantly, which is what jazz improvisation is all about. I wrote to him about this and we started communicating back and forth. I also sent him several of my albums, both jazz and classical, to hear what I do on the instrument. Perhaps prompted by my questions, he is now very interested in exploring how the mind works in the creative process. I mentioned that quite honestly I really don't know what goes on in my mind when I'm creating musical improvisations. They just come out as fluidly as when speaking to someone. In speaking, we don't think of every word, the individual words just come out as part of a sentence. It seems to be the same thing with jazz and improvising, where you are already thinking of full-blown ideas many measures ahead of where you are at the moment, and that whatever ideas you're thinking of come out of your instrument as if by magic. The fingers just go down to produce these ideas and to me this is a great mystery, I don't know how this happens. All I can understand is that ideas pop into my mind, I hear where I'm supposed to go in terms of these musical ideas as well as visualizing the chord changes coming before they happen. So once again, I haven't a clue as to why my fingers simply go down and play what I'm hearing in my head. I hope to discuss all this with Oliver Sacks when we meet. He plans to write about the results of our conversations in an essay to be published, followed later in a book on the subject of the creative mind in music and how it works.

Vinilemania: When the music works, when it all comes together and there is that amazing energy it is an incredible experience. That feeling of being at one with the world, you can do no wrong. Have you a most memorable musical moment, either with your quartet, your trio or any band that you've played with?

Daniel Smith: Yes I have. It's actually a moment that happens over and over again. The final piece performed at the end of my jazz concerts is Horace Silver's“Sister Sadie”. This version includes two shout choruses which are short riffs played against the theme. No matter how well a concert is going, when you get to 'Sister Sadie', it's the icing on the cake, leaving people cheering and with all the musicians feeling that excitement along with the audience. It is a very magical moment and always a highlight of every jazz concert.

Vinilemania: That’s great, so the energy of the people, the audience interaction actually adds to the energy, you feed of off that.

Daniel Smith: Oh absolutely, that’s exactly right about the energy and which brings back a memory of a concert I did in England some years ago. I have performed quite a few concerts for music clubs all around England,Wales and Scotland. Many of these music clubs have a long history, going back sometimes for almost a century in some cases. Their framework almost always is traditional classical music featuring string quartets, violinists, pianists, cellists and so forth. Along with classical recitals and jazz concerts, I have in many cases also presented concerts divided between classical and jazz; the first half being classical with bassoon and piano, and the second half jazz with my quartet 'Bassoon and Beyond'. In this particular concert I am thinking of, the audience as usual appreciated the classical and crossover music presented in the first half...but then went crazy for the jazz segment which followed.... they just loved it! At the end of the performance, an elderly woman, using a walker, came up to speak to me. She spoke of the jazz she had just heard, “I loved that music, it really made me want to get up and dance.” So even traditional music clubs with audiences like this, who have never been exposed to jazz, and even if it is the first time they are hearing it, let alone on a bassoon, they always react with great enthusiasm. They simply love the jazz segment of the concert, whether young, middle age, or the elderly as just described!

Vinilemania: I've been to some concerts, very few thankfully, that people just didn't know what to expect or they were expecting something entirely different. At this one show, the audience was expecting a swinging big band, instead an advent garde quintet shows up. The redeeming part of this concert was the featured artist who happened to pull of some incredible solos and literally pulled the gig out of the fire. I heard from people after the show, “Oh I was hoping to hear such and such play this or that, I really didn't know what to make of this new music, but I really liked that soloist, he was so exciting, I'd like to see him on his own.”

Daniel Smith: Well that’s right, they wouldn't know what to make of it but they still found something to appreciate. To slightly digress on the subject of what people like or don't like when hearing a performance. Some years ago I did a concert in England which was a classical recital with piano. The performance received a somewhat negative review from a particular critic and at the time it affected and bothered me, I didn't understand what we had done wrong. The pianist who accompanied me was friends with a well-known British ballet master and he asked him what to make of this review. The ballet master asked him, “What did you see when you looked out at the audience?” My pianist said that the audience liked the concert, that there was a lot of applause, that we came out for an encore, and that the audience seemed to really enjoyed the music. The ballet master then asked him what did he notice when he glanced at faces in the audience. Were they smiling, and did their eyes shine in approval? which my pianist said yes. He then said, “Remember, the eyes never lie.” I always keep this comment in mind, that 'the eyes never lie'. So if an audience looks like they are enjoying the music with smiles, applause, and shining eyes, then it doesn't matter what a critic might say, you are obviously doing something right!

Vinilemania: That’s very good, more young artists should pay attention to that, some take what the critics say way to seriously. In a lot of cases the critics are just trying to create controversy or so it seems.

Daniel Smith: In my case, ninety to ninety five percent of all the reviews to date for my albums and performances are on the positive side, whether jazz or classical and whether from critics, audiences or musicians The negative reviews however are really horrific and often wipe me out completely with no redeeming features. They simply don't like anything I sound, my material, my concept, my phrasing, my pitch, or anything they can pick apart. I often trace back who such reviewers are and find out in many cases the reviewer is a bassoon player. So there you are, fill in the blanks and come to your own conclusions. My motto is to always try to do the best I can, and if someone does not like what I do, that's fine with me, just so I know I gave my very best.

Vinilemania: That’s too much man, wow! At least there aren't that many bassoon player critics out there. Getting back to the bassoon itself, it is a very exotic looking instrument, how do you go about finding the right instrument for you and is it challenging process?

Daniel Smith: You learn early on when studying the instrument that the best bassoons made are the world famous Heckle bassoons, manufactured in Wiesbaden Germany. I finally purchased mine after using other makes for several years until I could afford to purchase a Heckle. I worked with a bassoonist who knew a lot about key arrangements, and he helped me fill in exact specifications needed for a superior instrument on the Heckel order form. Thanks to him, I have an excellent Heckel bassoon which I rely upon to produce the best results whether in classical or jazz.

Vinilemania: The bassoon is a double reed instrument, I've heard that the reeds are very intricate and are also usually custom made. How do you go about getting your reed? I don't think you can just pick them up over the counter at your local music shop, or can you?

Daniel Smith: That’s absolutely correct, you can't simply pick up a reed at random over the counter. I make my own reeds, and to learn and perfect the reed making process takes in my opinion a good ten years of doing and learning by trial and error. I've really upgraded my skills in the last half a dozen years after making reeds for decades, it’s a life long process. What’s really frustrating is that every reed plays and reacts differently from day to day. So you have to make adjustments on a daily basis when practicing or performing. using a knife, sandpaper, and other techniques. An experienced bassoonist will know instantly by blowing the reed and making a 'crowing' sound whether the reed will play comfortably throughout the different ranges, whether it will give a bright sound or a more mellow sound, will respond easily or might need more work to make this happen, as well as other the reed is very important. It can make you sound like a great player or something a lot less if the reed is not up to a high standard and which will prevent you from playing at your best.

Vinilemania: The reed itself is an odd looking thing, it doesn't look like any of the other woodwind reeds I've seen. It’s very different?

Daniel Smith: Yes it is...and also the instrument itself. If you look at books on the history of the development of various instruments over the years, the bassoon is generally considered the least evolved woodwind instrument. Starting with early forerunners from the Renaissance period, the modern bassoon is still a very complex instrument to play. When you play a saxophone for instance, and want to jump an octave, you simply press a key to jump the octave and use the same fingerings. On a clarinet, you press a register key which produces a note a twelfth higher but with the same fingerings. On the flute, your embouchure will help lift you up an octave, again often with the same fingerings. But on the bassoon, as you are move up into the third register, you have to completely re-arrange your fingers, there is no octave key and no shortcuts. That accounts for why there are only a half dozen or so jazz bassoonists in the is much more difficult to attempt jazz on than all the other wind instruments. And to the best of my knowledge, I am the only one of these handful or so of jazz bassoon players who covers both classical and jazz with recordings and in live performances.

Vinilemania: Zah Zah is the record label that released your last two CD’s. Are you signed to that label, Zah Zah.

Daniel Smith: No I'm not signed exclusively to this label, which is part of Guild Music in Switzerland. Guild's catalogue in such as classical, choral, light music, world music, etc. is very extensive. I knew the owner of the company some years before I made my jazz albums. When I later had these jazz albums completed, he agreed to release them on Zah Zah and they have done extremely well to everyone's satisfaction .

Vinilemania: Plans for the near future, are there more CD’s in the works?

Daniel Smith: Yes. I recently had a meeting in New York with pianist Martin Bejerano where we came up with some excellent ideas for future recordings. Blue Bassoon would be a collection of blues in different styles and might also be a double album project. Big Band Bassoon would feature the music of the big band era and include the music of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, Les Brown and many others. Bassoon Goes Latin would highlight bossa novas, salsa, ballads, and so forth. Bassoon and Beyond , which is also the name of my quartet, would feature more contemporary music. I have someone in Europe working on getting a jazz label to consider releasing these in the future.

Vinilemania: That sounds great, very exciting and I hope that all comes together for you. I also hope we see the same quartet with you. I think Martin Bejerano is great, when he lets go it is wonderful, an excellent pianist. The whole quartet is great, the synergy of the band really works well with you.

Daniel Smith: Martin and I have already agreed that we would use his band for future recordings, so you can count on some excellent and exciting results when they are made.

Vinilemania: Daniel when you are not playing the bassoon what are you doing? What are some of your other interests?

Daniel Smith: I'm an avid reader, I read about a hundred books a year, two books a week if I can. I read books on history, politics, biographies, essays, all sorts of subjects. My other passion is travel, I just love to travel. I've been to about fifty countries all over the world and hope to do a lot more in the future. There is something about travel where everything seems so different from what you expect to see and experience when you get to a particular place or country. At one time, and within just a period of a month or so, I was first in Bombay, India, then four countries in Africa, then traveling up the Amazon river in Brazil on a ship, and then looking at the skies above a fjord in Norway near the Arctic Circle. Once you have traveled and seen other cultures, you can never see the world in the same way again....for better or worse.

Vinilemania: Daniel have you any advice for young players, or musicians in general, artists just getting into the business or contemplating music as a business?

Daniel Smith: I wish I could just simply explain how it happens but there really is no blueprint. It's true that every so often somebody incredibly talented comes along and you know they will be very successful even before becoming famous. Take Wynton Marsalis for example. Even before he came to study at Julliard, everyone in the New York music world already knew about him thanks to the reputation which preceded him and also his well known musical family. He went on to make classical albums, then his jazz recordings and performances..., he just made a very big impact from the very start. But unless you're talking about this sort of a one-of-a-kind situation, or there is a powerful mentor to open doors for you, it’s just a roll of the dice as to what may or may not happen. Someone very talented comes along, and through a set of circumstances, makes it very big. And then someone equally talented, whether in jazz ,classical or whatever, remains unknown and never get recognition. I think you just have to go by your guts and believe in yourself. You never really know what tomorrow might bring, so one must always keep moving forward if you are serious about your ambition to succeed in music.

Vinilemania: Can there be an in-between can you fit in somewhere in the middle, be a sideman and make a decent living from the business, from your instrument.

Daniel Smith: Absolutely.... you've just described ninety five percent of everyone in music. It’s the way the world works. If you're a violin player for instance, and unless someone very powerful in the music world gets behind you, or perhaps money, luck and politics come into play, you will have to aim for making a living playing in string sections. After a lot of hard work studying the instrument, you might wind up being accepted at a music conservatory such as Julliard, The Curtis Institute, or Peabody. You then start to network with people doing freelance orchestral work, operas, ballets, tours, shows, etc., and if you stand out from the crowd, might eventually become a member of a major symphony orchestra. But jazz as we see in jazz, there are musicians who are very accomplished, quite talented, who play for years and years doing the club circuits, but will never command the fees of a Sonny Rollins or Chick Corea.

Vinilemania: Than you are like a skilled laborer, as long as you can play your instrument you have a job, you are guaranteed a certain sense of security.

Daniel Smith: Well that’s right, but the security part of your comment is a question mark. In the early stages of my career on bassoon, I did a lot of orchestral playing around the New York area, subbing one season with the New York Philharmonic. The Metropolitan Opera also for one season, the New Jersey Symphony for two seasons and so forth. I saw many orchestral players who became jaded. After all, how many times can you play the Beethoven’s 6th symphony where it almost becomes like an assembly line mentality and which is radically different from somebody who is a soloist in jazz?

Vinilemania: That’s too bad; the spirit of the art starts to lessen when that occurs.

Daniel Smith: Well I agree with you to some extent, you're not wrong. But on the other hand, some musicians make very good money playing in a major orchestra along with teaching at a conservatory and giving private lessons...... the income can be considerable. As I said earlier, someone may be as skilled as the musician I'm describing, but for one reason or another never had a break, maybe they didn't do well at an important audition, might not be connected to the right contractors or in certain music circles, and is left floundering around trying to make a living.

Vinilemania: Yea that’s too bad.

Daniel Smith: It is, there’s no rhyme or reason– except for a few individuals who are so much better than the flock, they just stand out on their own. In other cases it’s like life itself, you just don't know what is going to happen tomorrow.

Vinilemania: True enough, true enough so what else is in the future for Daniel Smith?

Daniel Smith: The UK and world premiere of Robert Farnon's jazz-oriented bassoon concerto “Romancing The Phoenix” will take place in February of 2009 at Birmingham Town Hall. Robert Farnon, who is a legend in the world of arranging and musical composition, became aware of my skills in both classical and jazz. He had this concerto in mind for me since it involved virtuoso playing which spanned classical and jazz and includes improvisation.The premiere performance will include two orchestras and a jazz rhythm section on stage, so you may wonder how will I be heard above these massed forces. For my jazz playing I perform on an amplified bassoon set-up. A microphone is mounted on my bocal which then has a cord going to a pre-amp on the floor, and then via another cord into an amplifier. The volume and tone quality can then be adjusted on the amplifier. I can then be heard above any ensemble, whether a jazz trio, concert band or orchestra. Anyone who aspires to play jazz on the bassoon must get the bassoon amplified or else run the risk of being drowned out.

Vinilemania: That sounds wonderful, I would like to see that concert. Anything else Daniel before we say good night.

Daniel Smith: I am looking forward to performing in many countries in 2008. Concerts at festivals, jazz clubs and concert series are now being arranged via my various managers in Greece, Switzerland, Scotland, Germany, Italy, the UK, USA and with more countries in the pipeline. My jazz albums are now heard on jazz radio stations in all these countries, so there is now a ready-made audience situation where jazz fans in these countries will want to hear me perform live.

Vinilemania: It all sounds good Daniel, I wish you all the best for the future and want to thank you for taking the time to talk with us.

Daniel Smith: Well thank you Paul, it’s my pleasure and it was really nice to talk with you.

Copyright Paul J. Youngman – KJA Jazz Advocate, December 2007, all rights reserved.

Reproduced by kind permission of the author.




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