ARTICLES (Music Teacher)
Published in ‘Music Teacher’ August 1999

B E - B O P  B A S S O O N
The bassoon is not exactly at the top of the list when it comes to playing jazz. But Daniel Smith is convinced that there is more scope for this instrument to go funky than it is given credit for and offers a few tips on how to get started.

The four-minute mile, a man on the moon, jazz on the bassoon. Just because something has not happened already does not mean that it is not going to at some point. But just how does one attempt to play jazz, to improvise, on the bassoon? This is the problem and here are my observations on this subject.

For starters, the bassoon is a very difficult instrument. A jazz phrase, whether written out or improvised, is already very much more difficult to execute on the bassoon than on a saxophone, for instance. And then there is the issue of style. Just who do you copy? Saxophone players can study the playing of Charlie Parker, Stan Getz and John Coltrane, trumpet players Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis and so forth. Who does an aspiring jazz bassoonist copy? And then, where and how would you learn how to do this and then get the chance to try out your attempts at perfecting such a very difficult skill?

I believe that the main reason for jazz on the bassoon being such a very rare thing is in the very nature of the instrument. Not only is it a very difficult instrument to master, as most woodwind players would readily acknowledge, but you will have to shed all your preconceived notions as to how you will attempt to play jazz. In essence, you have to wear two hats, keeping a conservatory trained concept in place when performing in an orchestra, ensemble, or playing a recital, and then switching over to another way of thinking and playing when entering the field of jazz. Using such models as Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon and Stan Getz, for instance, you can begin to explore musical concepts, styles, sounds and ideas in the jazz idiom that are more or less in the main ranges of both bassoon and saxophone.

A really effective starting place is to work with the Jamey Aebersold play-along CDs, produced in the USA and available in the UK and in many other countries. But even before doing this, you have to begin to carefully work through all the scales and chords in every key (including the extensions of the chords up to the 13ths). One sequence that both classical music and jazz often have in common are 11-V7-1 patterns and elaborations of this with extended use of the cycle of 5ths. In the case of jazz, however, there are many scales and chords that do not exist in classical music, such as the diminished whole-tone scale, or +9. This would consist of the notes 1, flat 2, sharp 2, 3, sharp 4, sharp 5, flat 7 and 8.

Another very important scale to learn is the ‘blues’ scale which consists of the notes 1, flat 3, 4, sharp 4, 5, flat 7 and 8, again to be learned in all keys. By injecting segments of this scale into solos, whether blues or actual tunes, you can start to get a funky sound and feeling into improvisations. At first, being classically trained as almost all bassoonists are, the idea of going on to the 9th, llth, and 13th when playing chords is a new and different concept, let alone the playing of such completely altered scales as the above mentioned +9 and the blues scales. However, with time and patience, all these new scales and chords start to feel comfortable both to the fingers and the ear.

And then comes the plunge into improvising. Even being a virtuoso on the instrument will be of no help at the beginning since your first attempts at creating and playing convincing jazz ideas will sound rather silly and forced. But it is important to start somewhere, just like a baby learning how to walk by putting one foot after the other. And don’t be held back by the obviously awkward attempts that will be the case in the first weeks or even months. Get other people periodically to hear what you are doing as you try out new ideas, no matter how bad you think they sound (which they very well might). This gives you the initial chance to learn to play in front of others, so that when you eventually get good at this skill and can play jazz at a professional level, you will then have the confidence to get on stage in front of a rhythm section or band and play effective, convincing jazz.

The Jamey Aebersold CDs, as already mentioned, will give you the chance to work out ideas with a first-rate rhythm section, just the same as they would for players of traditional jazz instruments such as the saxophone or trumpet. Playing along with the CDs, you learn how to play the roots of chords in the proper places, then move on to the next steps by adding 3rds, then 5ths, then scale fragments and so on. You can then begin trying out simple musical ideas and rhythms based on the chords you will hear coming to you from the piano and bass player on the CD.

Take chances. Don’t be afraid to bend notes and inflect just like a tenor saxophone player might do: you will find that it works just fine, so long as you can wear that other hat and think of yourself as now being a jazz performer instead of the classically-trained bassoonist that you already are. Don’t worry about any problems with playing in classical or ‘legitimate’ situations when you have to; when you switch back to a classical setting, your conservatory skills will always be there for you. I have found that my classical performing as of late has a new dimension to it which I attribute to extensive work in the jazz idiom; it is looser, more fluent and confident, and has a much more flowing style than I ever had before.

When learning to play jazz, always try to utilise and reflect back to ideas and styles that you have heard from listening to first-rate jazz artists, especially those on the saxophone. If you want to play convincing jazz on a bassoon (or any other instrument), you must become familiar with the styles, sounds and ideas of great jazz improvisers, so try to get a decent number of jazz recordings and listen to them carefully until you have absorbed the idiom into your musical psyche.

Another important skill to cultivate is that of memory. More than likely, the average classically-trained bassoonist rarely utilises this faculty since almost everything is read from the printed page. Start off gradually by taking some simple tunes and learn to memorise the melodies and to play them in tempo. At first you will make some silly errors and jump to a wrong note, especially if there is an awkward interval to execute. Slowly but surely with repetition, the fingers and mind start to comprehend how to go to the sound that the mind is hearing in advance of the next note in a melody, and the fingers will go where they belong to produce the right note. The process then will speed up and you will start to realise that you are gradually beginning to be able to execute almost anything on the instrument that you are hearing in your head. It will take some time to get to this point, but it is a very exciting feeling when you realise that after much hard work, you are able to do this almost at will.

Then there is the subject of amplification. Some years ago the great American tenor saxophone player Illinois Jacquet appeared at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London. Having already taken lessons on the bassoon with Manny Zeigler, principal bassoonist of the NY Philharmonic, he was a capable player of the instrument. However, during the evening, when he switched from saxophone to bassoon during one of the sets, the results were not what should have been - the bassoon was acoustic and could not be heard by the audience.

The solution is to have the bassoon amplified and there are two ways of doing this. One is a microphone poised at the top of the bell with a wire running to an amp; the other is with a microphone built into the middle of the bocal and connected to a pre-amp box which then is plugged into an amp. By altering the bass, treble, and volume on the amp, you can then create different sounds, balances and effects. The Barcus- Berry company in California makes such a device and I have used the latter to great success. With many performances now behind me in jazz clubs, in concerts and at festivals, I can comfortably play out with a sound clearly heard above the piano, bass and drums behind me; it is even possible to be heard above a full orchestra. I had the opportunity to do this a few seasons ago, when I performed Steve Gray’s Jazz Suite for bassoon and orchestra with the Welsh Chamber Orchestra at the Beaumaris Festival in Wales.

One of the many delights of playing jazz on a bassoon is to find yourself performing for audiences that are totally taken with something so unusual and different. I have found that when I perform programmes divided between classical and jazz, the audiences react even more strongly to the jazz segment of the concert than the classical section, even audiences at classical concerts and festivals who have no particular knowledge of jazz. The first half of my concert will consist of classical selections accompanied by piano, then a bass player and drummer are added after the interval for jazz selections.

By performing an interesting mixture of jazz standards, blues, be-bop, ballads, swing, latin and original works, a very successful evening is always the outcome. There are also straight jazz concerts, opportunities to perform in jazz clubs and even performances on cruise ships. And finally, there is the chance to try out projects which can combine classical and jazz skills. With my quartet, we have explored such unusual areas as adapting traditional music of the British Isles to a jazz setting and taking baroque and other classical selections and transforming them into jazz pieces.

My final comment concerns commitment and expressiveness in your playing. Just as a beautiful melodic line or a well-shaped phrase is what you are aiming for in classical music, the same can be said about jazz. As you improvise, always try to play something that expresses an emotion, be it one of joy, sadness, excitement, or whatever the piece calls for.

This is a rather short overview of playing jazz on the bassoon but hopefully it will give some insights as to what is involved in this very difficult but rewarding musical skill. And finally, when you have been doing this for a period of time, and with enough trial and error and experience, you eventually learn to play by ear. Meaning that any musical idea you can think of in your head can instantly be executed on the instrument during an improvised solo. The results will be well worth the efforts.


Daniel Smith is a much-recorded solo artist as a classical or jazz performer and has an interest in education. He was recently featured soloist at the 5th International Jazz Convention at Leeds University and with his own quartet Bassoon and Beyond at London’s Pizza on the Park.








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