Makis: The use of the bassoon in jazz is characteristically rare. Beyond some sporadic appearances such as in the Paul Whiteman Band in the 1920's and some references in modern jazz by Yusef Lateef or Chick Corea and Frank Tiberi or the instrument's use in avant-garde compositions, the bassoon is not often used in jazz. How successful such a relationship can be is of course proven by your exceptional work. Tell us about the relationship of the bassoon with the art of improvisation and swing.
Daniel: In regard to the bassoon and it's use in jazz, especially with improvising : If anyone has gone to my website and reviewed my biography, they will realize that when I was younger, I played professionally all of the woodwinds - saxophone, clarinet, flute, even a bit of oboe. . . and that my degree was on flute and not bassoon. I studied with many of best teachers on all these instruments and played with name bands, show bands, latin bands, symphony orchestras, etc. . . . so I feel I can give an accurate comparison of the bassoon to these other instruments. To begin with, the bassoon is similar to a violin or cello in that one would need roughly ten years to really master it and become a virtuoso. By comparison, the saxophone could be played quite well in just a year or two with serious practice and some talent involved. What makes therefore the bassoon so rare in jazz is that it is several times harder than a saxophone to play. . . as just one example. When you hear a jazz phrase on bassoon identical to that on a saxophone, it is much harder to execute. . . . and when you get into the area of improvising, it is nearly impossible to pull off. Many bassoon fingerings are quite complicated, and to execute original jazz phrases is not for the faint hearted. It requires years of concetrated study to get to this point, and even if one is already a virtuoso bassoonist in classical music, it will not help in any way to switch over to jazz and improvising! You have to completely retrain yourself to learn all the many unusual jazz chords and scales which are not in classical music and then move on to hearing ideas in your head and executing them above the chord changes. So to sum up, playing jazz on the bassoon is several times harder to do than on any other woodwind. . . which explains why there are, or have been, so few jazz bassoonists over the years.
Makis: "Be Bop Bassoon" and "Swingin' Bassoon" are two jazz albums of yours with your quartet. Tell us about these works and about your fellow musicians.
Daniel: The pieces heard on these two albums were recorded over three days in New York. Before going into the recording studio, we rehearsed quite a few pieces over yet another three day period and made decisions at that time as to which pieces worked best with a bassoon-led jazz quartet. We eliminated several that did not seem to come together and settled on 21 pieces in all. At the recording session, I was tempted to concentrate on just 10 pieces, enough for just one album. Martin Bejerano talked me out of this and urged me to record all 21 pieces, which then were divided up into two albums which were later released. I am very thankful that I listened to Martin and went for the total we had rehearsed for the sessions. As for these great musicians, what can I say? Martin Bejerano is currently making a major name for himself on the International jazz scene while both John Sullivan and Ludwig Afonso are highly regarded in the jazz world for their skills on bass and drums. We are now in the planning stages for future albums, including an all blues album, one featuring the music of the great swing bands, a latin album, and one showcasing contemporary pieces. The reaction to the first two jazz albums has been tremendous with great reviews and extensive airplay worldwide. 'Killer Joe' from Bebop Bassoon is now the fifth ranked all-time download with All About Jazz and 'Scrapple from the Apple' from The Swingin' Bassoon is moving up fast on this same prestigious list. As for those new recording projects I mentioned, I plan to use the same musicians. My jazz skills have improved greatly since making these albums and I look forward to having the chance to display this on future recordings.
Makis: You are one of the few accomplished musicians who moves between two very demanding musical fields, classical music and jazz. How do you accomplish this and how do you see the relationship between these two modes of musical forms?
Daniel: A very good question and one which is not so easy to answer. As already mentioned, it takes quite some time even after one is a virtuoso on the bassoon to learn how to play decent jazz and to improvise. When you have reached this point as a performer, you then have to 'wear two hats' and shift your thinking and use different approaches when playing classical and jazz. I have done this quite a few times within the same concert with split classical/jazz presentations. The first half of such a programme consists of bassoon with piano in a recital format featuring classical and crossover music. Then after the interval, a trio of piano, bass and drums comes on stage and we perform jazz ranging from bebop to swing, latin, blues, ballads and contemporary pieces. I perform on acoustical bassoon for the classical part of the concert and then switch to amplified bassoon for the jazz segment. The results of these concerts are very rewarding. . . the audiences appreciate the classical part but are completely blown away by the jazz that follows. My approach is to not take too many liberties in the classical segment and keep the music 'straight' and within a conservatory trained interpretation for each piece. Then when we get to the jazz, I then take off my classical 'hat' and utilize many different approaches to the music with bending of notes, slurs, glissandos, use of space and rhythm, dynamics, etc. . . . something very different from the preceding classical music which the audience has just heard. I also find the jazz idiom much more rewarding and challenging than classical music in which you are a 're-creator' of music instead of a 'creator' as in jazz.
Makis: What drove you to choose the bassoon, such a difficult instrument, as a mode of expression?
Daniel: As I pointed out before, I had mastered all the woodwinds earlier in life and was already performing professionally on these instruments. When I was in the US army, I was a member of the West Point Band where I was the solo piccolo/flute player. My daughter was born around that time and I was concerned about having to make a living when I re-entered civilian life. . . so I decided to study the bassoon during the time I was in the band. Since I already played all the saxophones, clarinet, flute and piccolo, I thought that by adding on a double reed instrument, I would be ready to perform with Broadway show bands, do studio work, and so forth, and be in a position to make a decent living as a 'doubler'. I started my studies with one of the band's bassoonists and after leaving military service, took further instruction on both bassoon and contrabassoon with some of the best teachers around the NY area. . . members of the NY Philharmonic, The Boston Symphony, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, The Philadelphia Orchestra, and even a former member of Toscanni's NBC Symphony. I had scholarships to Tanglewood and the National Orchestral Association and eventually performed in the bassoon sections of many of the same orchestras where I had studied with their principal bassoonists and contrabassoonists. Eventually I developed a 'passion' for the instrument and step-by-step moved towards a solo career and step-by-step dropped the other instruments. I found it much more challenging than any of the other woodwinds and felt that it was capable of producing the most wonderful sounds. Then after quite some years of being a soloist in classical music, including concerto performances with orchestras, numerous recitals, and many classical and crossover albums, I then added on jazz later in life. . . . which is now my main focus. Playing jazz is a never ending process of continually playing at higher and higher levels of creativity and which catch me by surprise whenever I pick up the bassoon to improvise.
Makis: Which musicians do you consider your mentors?
Daniel: Besides many classical players from my earlier years, my main jazz influences would be such as Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown, Dexter Gordon and others. I continually shift back and forth in my improvisations between various styles and keep experimenting to see which ones work best on bassoon and also to combine many of them to create a new style. . which then becomes my own 'signature' style. Remember that anyone learning the art of jazz improvising on such instruments as the saxophone, trumpet, trombone, piano, etc. have role models to listen to and get ideas from. With the bassoon, you are virtually inventing a style from scratch and the end result will always be something new and different.
Makis: Do you believe that Europe can (if it does not already do so) play a role of creative nucleus for this new century's jazz?
Daniel: From what one of my European agents has told me (this would be Horst Papeler-Deutsch in Berlin), the level of jazz players throughout Europe is now considered by many as being on a par with American jazz musicians. I don't have any particular viewpoint on this comment since this is obviously a a very subjective statement. But I always make a mental note when I hear someone play jazz as to how good I think they are, regardless of what country or culture they are from.
Makis: Have you ever visited Greece? How do you see our country?
Daniel: I have been to Greece a few times including a month long vacation on the island of Paros, a trip on a ship heading towards the middle east which went through the Corinth Canal, and one time visiting the Acropolis in Athens. I am an avid reader and very aware of the history of Greece in the 20th century, including the Turkish invasions of Smyrna and mainland Greece around WW1, the German occupation in WW2, the civil war that followed, the time of the junta, and onto the present. As an American, I have very strong feelings about what the USA did during the worst of the dictatorship by supporting it during the Nixon years. . . including the role of vice president Spiro Agnew who went to Greece to praise the junta for their 'strong commitment to Democracy'. I truly hope that the future for Greece will be one of a prosperous and Democratic nation. As for visiting Greece again, my wife informed me that she would love to go and revisit Paros and also see Athens, and visit other islands. . . as I would! The Greek islands are very special as you well know.
Makis: What do you think about the contemporary New York jazz scene? How much has the city of your birth changed in these past years?
Daniel: The contemporary jazz scene in NY would seem to be booming in many ways. However, I also remember a previous era when such jazz clubs as the original Birdland on 52nd st. , Basin Street East, and several clubs in Greenwich Village were the heart of the NY jazz scene. I went to Birdland countless times where I heard such greats as Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, Lester Young, Dinah Washington, Clifford Brown, and many more. . . this when I was a teenager and used a fake document to gain entry since I was under age. I was the first person on line to enter and then sat by the bandstand where I heard all these legendary jazz players and bands. The jazz artist I wished I had heard in person would have been Charlie Parker, without doubt in my opinion the greatest jazz musician who ever lived and a genius on a par with Mozart in classical music. . . the likes of such genius comes only once in a century, and perhaps never to be seen again.
Makis: How helpful is the digital age and the internet for musicians?
Daniel: For me it has been of huge help in getting my name known throughout the musical world. My website now has 26, 000 viewers to date, my jazz albums can be heard on many jazz websites, there are many articles, comments, and reviews on the Internet about my career and my classical and jazz albums, and much more. All of this would have been impossible in the past.
Makis: What can we expect from you in the near future?
Daniel: It looks like there will be live performances in many countries, new recordings, more interviews such as this one, and many other things now underway. I also know from experience that once people have a chance to hear in person jazz bassoon, they love it and that such performances are always a big success with audience and reviewers alike. I have four agents representing me worldwide; all working hard to promote me and who are now making significant breakthroughs towards making jazz bassoon into a major force in music. One should always keep in mind that with something of a pioneering nature which is new and different, such as jazz bassoon, it takes time for audiences, critics, and presenters to fully accept it. Given the many excellent reviews for my jazz albums, extensive airplay, articles and interviews, and the recently launched pod3tv show 'Daniel Smith' Jazz Bassoonist Extraordinaire" on the Internet, this process is now well underway and is continually expanding. As for my jazz skills, they are always improving and as already mentioned, I look forward greatly to displaying this in future live performances and on recordings.
Makis: Thank you for everything Daniel. I wish you all the best for the future and naturally hope we can see you soon in Greece.
Daniel: That's it! Hope you like my answers. And yes, like yourself, I too hope that I will have the opportunity to perform at Mykonos and other jazz situations in Greece soon. I thank you for this opportunity and look forward to the interview appearing with Jazz Notes.
Makis Morakis, www. jazznotes. info