by Winthrop Bedford
Smith is a multi-talented musician best
known for his pioneering work on the bassoon. This Brooklyn native
attended the Manhattan School of Music where he studied classical
music while merely listening to jazz. He has had quite an illustrious
career as a classical bassoonist, most notably in England, and he
has lived in Europe on and off for 20 years. Although citing Benny
Goodman as the man who sealed the deal in his decision to dedicate
his life to music, it is only recently that Daniel has taken up
jazz - becoming the first bassoonist to lead his own group and bring
the instrument out-front in an improvisational jazz setting. He
shows a particular fondness for bebop and traditional jazz and is
quoted to have put Charlie Parker's genius on par with Mozart's.
His two jazz CDs are entitled 'Bebop Bassoon' and 'The Swingin'
Bassoon'. You can learn more about Daniel at www.danielsmithbassoon.com.
Could you talk about your albums BeBop Bassoon and The Swingin'
Bassoon, your creation of the music and selection of personnel?
I had met Martin Bejerano, the pianist on these dates, some years
before. He had not yet made his name in jazz at that time. We hit
it off right away and came to an agreement to work together later
on if things were to develop for either of us. When the opportunity
of making jazz albums for the Zah Zah label in Switzerland came
to be, I immediately contacted Martin to ask if he could line up
a first rate rhythm section for these albums. At this time, both
he and John Sullivan, the bass player on the dates, were working
with Roy Haynes' band. Their first choice of a drummer to round
out a back-up trio was Ludwig Alfonso, who then shortly afterwards
went to join up with Spyro Gyra. I then went over many pieces with
just Martin on piano and myself to see which ones worked best. Next
came three days of rehearsals with the full trio where we eliminated
more pieces which did not come together as convincingly as some
others. Keeping in mind that, given the particular nature of the
sound of the bassoon, we had to make careful choices as to what
would sound good with a bassoon-led jazz quartet. The bassoon of
course was amplified for all the music we recorded. Once we started
to record over a three-day period in a studio, further ideas came
into play as to how to approach certain pieces. Some came out better
than others, but overall, I believe we accomplished what we set
out to do as evidenced by the many wonderful reviews and extensive
airplay that has taken place since we made the recordings.
What was it that attracted you to play the bassoon, a
double woodwind instrument, over all others?
I was already an accomplished player on all the other woodwinds
earher in life, having studied saxophone with the same teacher who
had taught Stan Getz and also received my degree on flute. On each
and every woodwind instrument, I studied with some of the best teachers
in the New York area and played professionally in many areas of
music ranging from name bands to Latin bands, show bands, orchestras
and so forth. Over the years, and especially when my daughter was
born, while I was a member of the West Point Band (where I played
solo piccolo and flute), I thought it would be prudent to add on
a double reed instrument to increase my chances of making a living
in music when I re-entered civilian life and to become a bona fide
'doubler'. I started taking lessons with a bassoonist in the band
and went on to further studies with many prominent bassoonists (and
contrabassoon as well) with members of several major symphony orchestras.
I found from the start that the bassoon was a much more difficult
instrument than any of the others I already played, and that it
was a great challenge to master it. Later on, and in stages, I drifted
into doing solo performances and recordings on the bassoon, and
eventually it became my main focus when an important decision was
made to become a soloist on the instrument and to drop the other
instruments. By this time, the sound of the instrument became my
own particular 'voice' and I started to delve into not only classical
repertoire but also crossover, ragtime, vocal adaptations, new age,
etc. and then onto jazz.
JI: How did your work in more strictured and structured
- and what improvisers might say are confining -situations such
as symphony orchestras and classical chamber groups, contribute
to or challenge your development as a creative musician?
As my jazz skills kept getting better and better, I found playing
in orchestras very confining and which challenged me to focus on
improving my improvising skills. Eventually I stopped playing with
orchestras and ensembles and focused exclusively on pushing a career
showcasing jazz and solo pieces on the bassoon. I still enjoy playing
recitals and performing concertos with orchestra as these situations
give me a chance to express myself with my own style in classical
music. Next season, for instance, I will be giving the world premiere
of Robert Farnon's jazz-oriented bassoon concerto "Romancing
the Phoenix" in the UK. This will involve two symphony orchestras
combining forces along with a jazz rhythm section on stage for sections
within the concerto where the bassoon opens up and improvises ...
sometimes against the orchestra and sometimes with the trio backing.
But overall, I find playing jazz a much more rewarding challenge.
As Wynton Marsalis once said: "In classical music you are a
recreator of music ... in jazz you are a creator of music."
Could you talk about some of the artists and or recordings
that inspired your interest in jazz?
When I was a teenager, I became a very big jazz fan. I went
regularly to the original Birdland on 52nd Street, using a fake
draft card to gain entry and was usually the first on line to buy
a ticket for exactly $1.80! Once inside, I sat next to the piano
in the 'Peanut Gallery', where there was no drinking. I heard many
of the jazz greats ... the bands of Basie, Ellington, Kenton, etc,
Stan Getz, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Dizzy, Gerry
Mulligan, Dinah Washington, even Lester Young shortly before his
death. I also built up a large collection of jazz LPs. As for my
inspirations in jazz, this would include Stan Getz, Charlie Parker,
Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins and a few others who really excited
me in those years and where I later found I could use their styles
in my own jazz playing on bassoon.. As with many other musicians,
I also feel that Charlie Parker was the greatest jazz genius ever,
akin to a Mozart who only appears once in a century or so ... and
the likes of which may never appear again. I was recently in Bremen,
Germany at the Jazzahead Convention where I heard Trilok Gurtu perform
with his band. I was absolutely stunned at his virtuosity and the
excitement generated at this performance. Hearing him has inspired
me to investigate the idea of applying this sort of jazz-fusion
world music onto my own style to open up more possibilities as a
Talk about some of the observations you made and/or lessons
learned from some of your mentors that have made a significant impact
on you personally or your artistry?
I remember well comments from various teachers and musicians I have
worked with where I began to see the possibilities of approaching
the bassoon as a solo instrument and extending its use into a broad
range of music, and in my very own way. Once you go in this direction,
you should be prepared for virtually anything to happen since not
everyone will understand or like what you do. Fortunately, about
95% of the reviews of my performances and albums, whether jazz or
classical, have been extremely positive. There seems to be no middle
ground, and if someone does not like my style or approach to music
in jazz or otherwise, they seem to go ballistic ... which is fine
with me as everyone is entitled to their opinion. But it is indeed
very gratifying to hear from bassoonists in many countries who like
what I do and to get positive feedback from audiences and critics
from my live performances and recordings.
One of the ways artists in jazz have in large part, developed their
own styles and or reputations, has been to apprentice - to play
in the groups led by high-profile, established jazz artists for
extended periods of time. Could you comment on how your own independent
path has helped or hindered your music and opportunity in light
of the aforementioned realities?
Given that there is no blueprint or role model for jazz bassoon
playing, one has to not only learn the craft on an instrument several
times harder than the usual jazz woodwinds such as saxophone, clarinet
and flute, but also virtually invent a style as well. I started
off playing jazz in public (this after years of classical performances
and many recordings) by performing at private parties. Then on to
some jazz clubs and concert series ... all the time trying to judge
the level of where I was at with each new engagement. Eventually
I felt comfortable enough via trial and error to perform with, and
heading bands, using highly skilled and experienced jazz players.
I also believe that my earlier skills on all the other woodwinds
have helped to incorporate subtle nuances in the sounds I strive
to create with jazz improvisation on the bassoon.
Could you share some of your perspectives about learning how to
improvise and the process of improvisation?
For starters, I would like to point out that at the time I made
a decision to plunge into jazz and improvisation, I was already
a 'virtuoso', so to speak, on the bassoon, having recorded many
award-winning classical and crossover albums as well as performing
concertos with orchestras and recitals with piano. I quickly found
out that this was to be of no help at all in learning the jazz vocabulary
and then moving on to actual improvising. It was only after a number
of years of working my way through many levels of moving upwards
with my jazz skills that the technique I already had in classical
music came into play and could be incorporated into my jazz improvising.
First came the long and drawn out process of learning all the jazz
scales, chords and blues scales in every key and from the bottom
to the top of the instrument. Since these scales do not appear in
classical music, it required training muscles in my arm never used
before and resulting in some rather painful moments when I thought
I was going to permanently injure my right arm. But just at the
point when musical ideas started to come flowing in a natural manner,
and when my fingers automatically went down on the right keys to
play the ideas in my head, the pain stopped and everything started
to flow ... and has been getting easier and easier since that time.
I can now perform a two-hour jazz concert completely from memory
and with the sure knowledge that any and all musical ideas which
come to my mind, my fingers will execute perfectly ... but I don't
have a clue as to how this happens. I have been in touch with Oliver
Sacks, the world famous author ('Awakenings') and neurologist on
this subject. After an hour and a half of discussion and playing
for him at his Manhattan office, he came to the conclusion that
he too did not understand what goes on in the mind with jazz improvising
... and suggested to me that I just 'keep doing it and don't even
think about it'. He has since sent me some research papers by someone
now delving into this ... but I still don't understand why the fingers
will go to the right keys to execute musical ideas which come flowing
into my mind ... and well in advance of actually playing these musical
ideas. And probably most important of all ... whenever I pick up
the instrument to improvise, whether I played it the day before
or a month before, the musical ideas always come out on a higher
level than the last time I played! Double-time figures, using spaces,
using dynamics, whatever my mind can come up with ... it seems to
always move to a higher level than the last time I improvised. Someone
now doing research on this phenomena described this as being 'out'
of oneself, or as Stan Getz once put it when he was really playing
well, that he had entered an 'alpha' state.
What are the pitfalls in life and business about which an artist
must be cognizant to achieve and maintain success?
Staying power ... and more staying power ... and if this fails,
still more staying power. There is no rational reason why some very
gifted musicians and people In any art form rise to the very top
while others with similar talents just struggle and never achieve
any great degree of success. Of course, there are a few geniuses
such as Picasso, Charlie Parker, Mozart, etc. who belong in a special
category, but for most of us, it seems to be a combination of lots
of hard work, experience, fate, luck and if you have a lot of money
to spread around, this helps quite a bit, given the nature of the
music business as it is today where many second rate talents and
sometimes no-talents have major careers. As Winston Churchill once
said: "never, never give up." Beyond this, I am always
aware of the fact that success can come and go at a moment's notice
and you always have to give things your best shot no matter what
the obstacles are. Otherwise you might as well sign up for accountancy
school and leave it at that.
What have you discovered about human nature in jour journey as an
Same as human nature outside of music. While the world is full of
treachery and deceit, there will always be good and decent people
to be there for you. I used to think that those in the arts were
somehow better than other people, but as many encounters have proved
to me over the years. in the word of music you have the usual mixture
of decent honest people, along with those who will backstab or try
to bring you down. and those who simply love what they are doing
and will support your own efforts. On an optimistic note, I am now
involved in my career with some very intelligent and hard working
people who are completely trustworthy. This includes our agents
now representing me worldwide, an art design person who has developed
highly effective promotional materials working with me, a public
relations person who has helped spread the word and pushed me onto
the jazz radar screen, and several more individuals who have been
of great help and support. So, in summation, and from my point of
view, human nature is completely unpredictable ... but keep your
eyes and ears open just in case!
How do you stay balanced - as an artist, as an individual given
the many distractions that surround us and the stress?
My balance seems now to come with the underlying belief that when
one has a purpose in life and always strives to fulfil that purpose,
somehow you will always rebound from what seems at a given time
like all is lost when things go downhill. And to quote poet e. e.
cummings: "To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing
its best, night and day, to make you everybody else, means to fight
the hardest battle which any human being can fight. and never stop