ISN'T ONE TO REPEAT HIMSELF.
On some level, that much stands to reason: Bassoonists don’t go into jazz because they’re looking to be predictable. Even under those circumstances, though, Smith has striven to present several aspects of his musical vision. The titles of his two jazz albums on the Zah Zah label, Bebop Bassoon and The Swingin’ Bassoon, speak for themselves; so do his two prior Summit releases, Blue Bassoon and The Bassoon Goes Latin Jazz! Each new outing tries on a different jazz idiom.
So what’s the logic behind Smokin’ Hot Bassoon Blues? Why revisit a point on the continuum he’s already covered, and that so recently in his catalogue?
There are a few answers to these questions. But here’s the short version: chalk it up to wanting to reach people.
Smith has been on something of a sabbatical from the music world. His wife, Judith, was struck with lung cancer in the beginning of 2012; Smith, her husband of over half a century, naturally became her caregiver. After more than a year of fighting, Judi Smith passed away in the spring of 2013. “Our life together was one you can only dream about,” Smith remembers. “We shared great adventures over the years, raised two children who in turn are now raising a total of 4 grandchildren…. I was blessed in so many ways and owe so much to her.”
Smokin’ Hot Bassoon Blues is dedicated to the beloved Mrs. Smith. That’s her photo you see in this CD booklet. “This album is my way of honoring her memory,” Smith says. “Judi was a beautiful person both outside and inside, and I wanted the world to see what she looked like and to hear the music dedicated to her memory."
Choosing the blues was an important factor in getting the world to hear this music. Smith first considered an album of staples from the big band era—an idea he still savors, and hopes to return to soon. But for this project he wanted something with “immediate musical appeal,” and what better than the form most directly aimed at the heart and the guts? It was certainly an effective formula in the case of Blue Bassoon, which, to date, has likely been his most acclaimed jazz release. (Not accounting, of course, for Smith’s long and prolific career as a classical bassoonist.) If the message was received then, certainly it can be again.
But also, and perhaps more significantly, Smith’s return to this particular well once more proves the richness and power of the blues itself. Those twelve bars and three basic chords open doors to a rainbow of harmonic, melodic, rhythmic and textural possibilities—not to mention the entire gamut of human experience. If further evidence of this diversity is needed, have a look at the composers represented on Smokin’ Hot Bassoon Blues: Ellington, Mingus, Phil Woods, Joe Henderson, Ray Charles. This is not a small range of musical personalities. Looked at this way, it becomes harder to see Smith as repeating himself here.
To arrive at those tunes, there was some consideration for the formidable band Smith had assembled. The sensitive but swinging young pianist Robert Bosscher joins bassist Michael O’Brien and drummer Vince Ector, two holdovers from the Bassoon Goes Latin Jazz!, in Smith’s rhythm section. In addition, several guest stars come aboard for important parts on the tunes: Neil Clarke, another Bassoon Goes Latin Jazz! featured player, brings rhythmic complexity and often another helping of Latin flavor to the affair, guitarist Ron Jackson injects taste and style but undeniable presence, while organist Greg Lewis and violinist Efrat Shapira pile startling amounts of soul onto the project. Of particular note is the appearance of crack blues singer Frank Senior, the first vocalist to work with Smith. As for why he made these particular recruitments, Smith says simply,
“I think the results speak for themselves!”
Each of these players brought new strengths and ranges to the music, and Smith had to account for all of them what he chose to perform. Thus began his usual process, gathering an enormous pool of potential tunes—dozens of them—and rigorously trying and rejecting them (and adding more) based on whether they fit the bassoon, the sound he was after, and the sidemen he was working with. Smith finally whittled them down to the terrific twelve you hear on the disc.
“Senor Blues” is a classic by Horace Silver (one of Smith’s favorites), full of dark drama that comes into focus here with Shapira’s singing violin entrance. There’s a certain braggadocio in the phrasings of Smith’s solo, but the violin’s slow, high-grade tension counteracts it—the tension then being released in the deadly earnest solos by Bosscher and Ector.
Lewis makes his first appearance on the ever-chipper “C-Jam Blues,” a/k/a “Duke’s Place.” Considering he’s a guest, the organist owns the Ellington favorite right out of the gate. He squeezes all the juice out of his Hammond he can find, with maximum gospel fervor as a byproduct (or, perhaps, the primary product). Smith has a ringer in Lewis, and he knows it, too: He has to pull out all the stops in his own bassoon line, just to keep up.
Frank Senior is essentially Ray Charles by proxy, as can be heard in his delivery on “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” the first of the album’s two Charles tunes. Not that he’s an imitator; Senior has certain common flourishes, but a delivery that’s (perhaps paradoxically) both more laid-back and more rhythmically in-the-pocket than The Genius. Nonetheless, Senior brings a deep understanding of Charles’ soul-blues attack that infects everything around him: Bosscher’s comp, O’Brien’s delightful arco solo, Smith’s edgy two-chorus statement.
A forceful 6/8 from O’Brien and Ector announces the unmistakable “Better Get Hit In Yo Soul,” one of the most contagious joys of the Charles Mingus catalogue. While Smith articulates the head, Shapira and Jackson contribute harmony lines that leave the piece absolutely dripping with blues. Jackson brings a solo line directly out of a Booker T. and the MGs record; Smith handles the stop-time break with try-and-catch-me aplomb that spills over into Bosscher’s complex workout.
“Hummin’,” a lesser-known setpiece from Nat Adderley, zooms past hard bop in Smith’s hands and goes right to what I call hard blues. (In fact, that’s a term I just coined to describe this performance: If hard bop means bop that’s heavily spiked with blues, imagine the wallop that’s in hard blues!) Bosscher and Jackson both earn their keep with their tasty and unwavering accompaniment of what might be Smith’s best solo work on the disc. It moves from sultry swing to funky soul, which is where the guitar and piano join O’Brien’s electric bass for strong solos of their own.
“Night Train” may just personify the remarkable versatility of the blues: It’s the kind of song that could be a slow drag hit for Oscar Peterson, and a hot dance hit for James Brown. Smith’s version falls somewhere in between them on the scale, though perhaps a bit closer to Peterson. His omnivorous solo covers the entire register of the bassoon. Jackson follows with another powerhouse performance that echoes Stax-Volt’s finest, as does the O’Brien solo that comes after.
The second Ray Charles tune, “What’d I Say,” takes on salsa dimensions in the capable hands of Robert Bosscher and Neil Clarke. Atop their groove, Smith and Shapira double-time the melody line, injecting energy that will soon be food for Frank Senior’s vocal performance. Again he demonstrates a mastery of Uncle Ray’s music, even if his singing here is more evocative of Bill Withers.
There’s a certain boldness in tackling “Blue Seven,” one of the most iconic tunes on one of jazz’s most iconic albums (Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus). But Smith captures that same smoky feel, with no small help from Ector’s shimmering ride cymbal and a cool strut by Bosscher and O’Brien. The bassoon solo has a hefty kick of Rollins in its phrasing and paces, but when it comes out it’s surely all Smith. An impressive piano solo follows, then the drums and bass trading fours.
“Moanin’” needs no introduction to anyone with more than a passing interest in jazz. However, when Jackson sinks his teeth into the song, it sounds not like a jazz set piece but something from deep inside a Chicago blues joint. The guitarist’s three choruses are chased by three penetrating ones from Smith, then a lyrical threesome from Shapira and gymnastics from Bosscher.
Jimmy Smith’s “Back at the Chicken Shack” was, of course, written for the organ—Jimmy’s axe—which gives Lewis another great moment. He devours the tune with relish, piling on four choruses with each more impassioned than the last. Smith asserts some zeal of his own on the next two choruses, Jackson coming behind him with some stinging blues licks in the next two. All are in the raw form that Jimmy Smith surely envisioned when he wrote this one.
Phil Woods wrote “Eddie’s Blues” for the great vocalese singer Eddie Jefferson, but it was never a vocalist’s piece; it had no lyrics and has never even been done with scat singing. Nevertheless, Smith and Shapira address it in the sonorous, skipping cadences that Jefferson favored, both in their unison readings of the head and their relaxed improvisations.
Intended for two horns, Joe Henderson’s “Mamacita” gets a neat treatment here: The main theme is instead taken on by bassoon, violin, and guitar in tandem, with the rhythm section (augmented by Clarke on bongos) doing a bang-up job of holding the quasi-Latin groove down. Indeed, that groove is the focus of O’Brien’s solo, and Smith entrenches himself in it as well. He then rejoins the string players on the secondary theme, and steers straight into the reprise in what turns out to be a lovely resolution to the song and to the album as a whole.
Simply put, yes, Smith’s doing a second album of the bassoon taking on jazz’s blues repertoire; still, that shouldn’t be taken as a sign that he’s playing it safe. If anything, he’s reaching farther than ever before.
- Michael J. West,
Jazz Journalists Association