interviewed by Gary Heimbauer
JI: At what point did you start improvising? What was this like for you - the unique rewards and challenges, as someone who had such a long history playing written music?
DS: I started to get serious about improvising at the time English composer Steve Gray wrote and dedicated to me his Jazz Suite for Bassoon. This was about thirteen to fourteen years ago. The piece was a three movement suite in two versions, one for bassoon and orchestra and the other for bassoon with jazz ensemble. I performed it a number of times, in the UK with the Welsh Chamber Orchestra and in the USA at Rockefeller University with a jazz ensemble. For the improvisational places, I had to write out solos, which in turn prompted me to get serious about really mastering the art of improvisation.
JI: Did you have to modify your technique and approach to the bassoon to play jazz?
DS: Yes, and a lot! I was already a virtuoso on the instrument with numerous recordings of concertos with orchestra, recital music, crossover albums, pieces with string quartets, etc. as well as a long history of live performances as a soloist. None of this was of any help to master the jazz idiom. Basically I had to virtually start from scratch by learning every possible jazz scale and chord in every key; this while also increasing the speed on a daily basis. The next step was trying to place the chords and scales where they fit into various pieces. After this came some rather awkward attempts at improvising with a lot of trial and error involved. This process probably took three to four years until everything started to come together, including the ability to hear the chord changes. Only then did my already developed classical technique tie-in with improvising. Since many scales and chords in jazz are not the same as in your basic classical music language, I was using muscles in my arms that had never been used in such a way. Just at the point where the pain in my right arm was getting out of hand due to this, and where I thought I would have serious physical problems, it all came together and from that point onwards, my arms and hands seemed to have a life of their own and the pain went away. I then took the next step and started to perform jazz in public at concert series and festivals, learning from my mistakes and picking up a lot of ideas as I moved ahead. One of the reasons jazz bassoon is almost non-existent is due to the fact that the instrument is simply hard to play! Anything executed on the bassoon compared to, for instance a saxophone, is several times harder to execute, whether the melody itself or in the case of improvisation, near impossible in theory. I played all the woodwinds over the years and actually have a degree on flute, so I know what is involved. Most people would never know this, and those who play woodwind instruments will immediately realize what the problems are to successfully perform jazz on a bassoon. It is not the use of air but rather the complicated finger patterns involved. For instance, on a saxophone you press an octave key to jump the octave, on the clarinet a register key will move you up twelve tones but with the same finger patterns after doing this, for many notes on the flute, you move up an octave with the use of the lip while the fingers remain somewhat the same, etc. But on a bassoon, one has to completely rearrange the fingers, and often in both hands, when changing registers, especially in the third top register. As with a violin, the bassoon is a ten year instrument to master, while other woodwinds can be mastered in much less time. This, in my opinion, explains why until now we have not seen too many attempts at introducing the bassoon into jazz.
JI: Many classical musicians can read amazingly, but may not understand the theory and chord/scale/arpeggio relationships as intuitively as jazz musicians. When you got into jazz, did you already understand how to play on changes, or did you have to start from the beginning? What methods did you use? Transcription, emulation, experimentation, etc?
DS: I think much of this has just been answered in the previous question and at this point in time, I can hear everything necessary to improvise on a high level
where I have just come from in a phrase, where I am at, and where I am going. I can visualize musical phrases many measures before I actually execute them. It has become as easy and effortless now as speaking, and a wonderful and gratifying result of all the many hours it took to get to this point. There were also no role models, so in addition to mastering jazz skills, I had to also invent a style suitable for the bassoon
which in turn is constantly evolving and changing on a daily basis.
JI: What events current or upcoming are you excited about in your musical life?
DS: Pretty much everything! Thanks to the help and support of several people who gave me encouragement and good advice along the way, I now am in a position to reap the rewards of hard work over the past years. I have four world class agents who represent me in well over 30 countries including Gino Moratti here in the USA, three excellent websites - and with over 34,000 visitors now on my main site - Fernando Natilici who is a first rate art design person and who guided me with wonderful advice along the way, two webmasters, Jim Eigo and Jazz Promo Services for outstanding promotion, and much more at my disposal. And thanks to Summit Records taking on my newest jazz album Blue Bassoon, we are now seeing wonderful reviews coming in world-wide on a daily basis, saturation of jazz radio stations with airplay in many countries, magazine articles, ads, and word of mouth to push things along. Engagements are now coming in to perform in many countries at festivals, concert series, clubs, etc. This in turn gives me the opportunity to present jazz bassoon to audiences who have never heard anything like it before. And probably best of all is watching the upgrading of my improvisational skills on a daily basis; which have seen them jump to a higher level since the making of Blue Bassoon. The results of this ongoing process will be heard in my next project of an all-Latin jazz album called Bassoonova-The Bassoon Goes Latin.
There are no guarantees in life, but when you keep trying to always do your best, despite what other people may think or say, it builds character and purpose which no amount of money can replace.
JI: What is it about musical improvisation that you find so valuable? What does it offer to you, your band-mates, and the listeners?
DS: This is at the same time both a simple and complex answer. On a basic level, you can see and feel the reaction to what you are doing with an audience as well as other musicians. The physiological aspects are almost impossible to fully understand since everything happens within a microsecond, but the emotional payback is instant and very rewarding. In fact, as Wynton Marsalis stated, with classical music you are a re-creator, with jazz, you are a creator. When I do split classical-jazz concerts, you can feel the change in the air with the audience after the intermission when I switch over to jazz with my quartet Bassoon and Beyond. The first half of these performances consists of recital pieces for bassoon and piano covering classical as well as crossover. The audience certainly appreciates and enjoys this part of the program. But when we get to the second half with jazz, they are simply blown away, including, as I have seen, elderly patrons who are used to such as piano, violin, and other recitals and have no idea what to expect when we feature a bassoon-led jazz quartet following the classical music. The response is indescribable. The audience as well as critics are left shaking their heads in disbelief - this from an actual quote from a concert in Scotland - and everyone is left with a wonderful feeling afterwards, including myself, the musicians, the critics, and last but not least, the audience.
JI: What do you think about/visualize when you are playing?
DS: I am transported into another world so to speak. Stan Getz called this the Alpha state) and at this point in my jazz career, I also do everything from memory. I have the utmost confidence that what I am about to play will be first rate and whatever I visualize in my mind will reflect in what my fingers and tongue will do on the instrument. I sat down with acclaimed neurologist Oliver Sacks (Awakenings, The Man who mistook his wife for his hat, etc.) at his NY office last year and we spent an hour together discussing improvisation on the bassoon and what goes on in my brain as this is happening. I played several pieces for him (it turned out he was a fan of mine) and I asked him to describe what was going on in my brain as I improvised. After careful consideration, he just shook his head and indicated to me that he did not understand how my brain was working to accomplish this. And so with a smile on his face, he said simply, just keep doing whatever youre doing!
JI: What motivates you and drives you forward?
DS: Besides my own personal feeling of accomplishment, watching other people getting older and with no discernable passion or drive to accomplish something in life other than what society, their surrounding culture, and their families expect of them
and then finding out in old age they have really never lived their own dream (if they ever had one) and stayed with it when the going got tough. The poet e e cummings said (to paraphrase)
the hardest thing in life is to prevent other people trying to stop you becoming the person you were meant to be. I have seen this over and over again in my own life, and am very thankful that I stayed the course over the roughest of times. There are no guarantees in life, but when you keep trying to always do your best, despite what other people may think or say, it builds character and purpose which no amount of money can replace.
JI: As an artist, your state of mind and ability to dig deep is important. Outside of playing, what do you do to re-center and find peace of mind? What do you do to break through all of the surface stress in our contemporary world? Or perhaps, you feel that angst is good for music?
DS: I am an avid reader and read about 100 books a year, ranging from history to politics, science, humor, philosophy, travel, spiritual and whatever else catches my interest. I just finished Music Quickens Time by Daniel Barenboim in which he explores the relationship of music to life, and where he shows by example, how music can dramatically alter some of lifes difficult situations. Working with the late Edward Said, they formed together the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra whereby young Israeli musicians play alongside Palestinian musicians as well as those from other Middle Eastern countries. Political and cultural differences are set aside and everyone works together in peace and harmony, which is how life should be and often is not. Once these young musicians realize they are more similar than different in so many ways, it paves the way for understanding in many other areas of life. My other passion is travel. I have been to quite a few countries over the years and am always amazed that nothing is as you thought it would be from what you expected prior to getting there - India, Africa, Scandinavia, South America, the Middle East, etc. My wife and I also lived in the UK for 18 years, dividing our time between London and our place in Brooklyn. Having seen many differences in cultures and values, and especially in Europe, I am dismayed and angry at what became of the USA during the shameful and corrupt Bush years. And most of all, my family is a wonderful source of comfort and love and a blessing which goes well beyond music.
JI: As a musician, what do you feel your role or responsibility is in our society?
DS: I made a short reference above to the Bush years and the corruption and distortion of values which permeated this country at that time, and still do to a very great extent. While musicians often have to scratch out a difficult living in this country, I have watched culture being relegated year by year to a minor priority while such as sports, as just one example, become the main interest for much of the population, and with the accompanying distortion of many other things along the way. For example, last year the New York Yankees signed three new players for a total of almost 500 million dollars. This while schools are denied funding and the arts are almost non existent in the curriculum. Unnecessary replacement Yankee Stadiums and Shea stadiums were constructed right next to the existing stadiums at a cost of several billions of dollars of taxpayers money. There were plans underway to restore music and arts in the schools, but thanks to this shameful use of funds to build the two new stadiums, this was shelved. I just read today that the average annual salary of a professional baseball player is only three million dollars, having dropped a bit from the previous years. When I travel to other countries, I can see with my own eyes the difference in values and the help and support governments give to the arts. At the Jazzahead convention last year in Bremen, Germany, Horst Papeler Deutsch, my agent from Berlin, asked me to mind his table while he went to attend a seminar. He told me afterwards that a German politician came to speak to the convention to announce plans for the German government to infuse one million Euros to help jazz clubs in Germany. This is in addition to huge government support of symphony orchestras, operas, ballets, theatre, etc. Did you know that the city of Berlin gives more money to the arts than our entire National Endowment for the Arts! This was not meant to digress from your question. I just wanted to point out that those of us who try to bring beauty and something meaningful to our society are fighting the good fight despite the overriding, and in my opinion, distorted values surrounding us on a daily basis. Endless and mindless entertainment is the daily gruel for many people along with an educational system slipping well below and behind many other countries. I watched for a few agonizing moments Are you smarter than a fifth grader where moronic questions were given to an obvious idiot and with the audience in the studio cheering and clapping as he said the correct answer to a question was saw and not seen or sawed
and thought to myself how dumbed down much of our society has become. Perhaps this is our role or responsibility in answer to your question, showing the value of music in a society where it is much needed to restore a sense of balance while often chaos, ignorance, corruption and greed reigns over all.
JI: What is the greatest compliment that you can receive as a musician?
DS: That I always tried my best and it showed!
JI: What is the most rewarding facet of your life as an artist?
DS: As the proverbial saying goes
one does not choose music - or any of the arts for that matter - but that it chooses you. Despite some very difficult years and many unexpected problems along the way, I am glad I stayed the course and got to this point. Just take a look at some of the elder statesmen in jazz and music in general
.Roy Haynes at 84, Hank Jones at 90, Snooky Young at 90, Dave Brubeck at 90, Grady Tate singing at 79, conductors and composers well into their 8th or 9th decade and many more such examples. It would seem that performing music, and doing it at your very best, keeps the spirit alive and keeps you young with a clear and meaningful purpose. Erroll Garner once sat at the piano at a recording session after the final take and kept improvising. When the producer said he could stop since the album was finished, Garner replied that he had to keep playing to see what would happen next! Sort of a metaphor for music and jazz
.and perhaps life itself.
One of the reasons jazz bassoon is almost non-existent is due to the fact that the instrument is simply hard to play! Anything executed on the bassoon compared to, for instance a saxophone, is several times harder to execute, whether the melody itself or in the case of improvisation, near impossible in theory. I played all the woodwinds over the years and actually have a degree on flute, so I know what is involved. Most people would never know this, and those who play woodwind instruments will immediately realize what the problems are to successfully perform jazz on a bassoon. It is not the use of air but rather the complicated finger patterns involved. For instance, on a saxophone you press an octave key to jump the octave, on the clarinet a register key will move you up twelve tones but with the same finger patterns after doing this, for many notes on the flute, you move up an octave with the use of the lip while the fingers remain somewhat the same, etc. But on a bassoon, one has to completely rearrange the fingers, and often in both hands, when changing registers, especially in the third top register. As with a violin, the bassoon is a ten year instrument to master, while other woodwinds can be mastered in much less time. This, in my opinion, explains why until now we have not seen too many attempts at introducing the bassoon into jazz.
- Gary Heimbauer, Jazz Inside Magazine, January 2010