Following the Magic: An Interview With Daniel
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 Goodmans 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 Lavalles 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
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. 'Thats 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 fingers....plus 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 audiencehow
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 Bassoonwhy 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
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
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
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 theres 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