Five with jazz bassoonist Daniel Smith, an interview conducted by
Paul J. Youngman, December 2007.
I have come across a treasure chest of classical
jazz standards by some of the biggest names in jazz. These pieces
are presented in a most interesting, different, and unusual way
by jazz bassoonist Daniel Smith. He interprets these jazz standards
in his very own way on his instrument of choice the bassoon, and
which he plays with exacting technique and expressive passion.
What does jazz mean to Daniel Smith?
I wasn't expecting that question, but its a good one. When
I was growing up in New York City, and when I was about 16 years
old, a friend introduced me to recordings of Charlie Parker and
Dizzy Gillespie. Shortly afterwards, I started going to jazz clubs
and concerts to hear jazz in person and also built up quite a large
collection of jazz recordings. Now many years later, and with this
earlier exposure to jazz which I remember so well, performing jazz
for me nowadays is much more of a challenge than classical music,
even though I have done quite a lot in that area with many recordings
and live performances. Wynton Marsalis once said, When you
play classical music you are a re-creator, when you play jazz you
are a creator. That is the essence of what it means to me...taking
a piece of music, capturing the style, weather bebop, swing or whatever,
and then creating interesting, exciting, and innovative new improvisations
based on that particular piece. This is the heart and soul of jazz
Well I think you did that on your newly released album, Bebop Bassoon
(2007 Zah Zah Records), you made some very nice statements on the
tunes that you picked. The tunes are great, some excellent picks.
When you decided to explore jazz, did you have a plan, was it going
to be one CD, two CDs?
It was pretty open ended and with three steps along the way. First
I met with pianist Martin Bejerano and we went over many pieces
with just piano and bassoon to see how they fit. The next step involved
the full quartet of John Sullivan on bass, Ludwig Afonso on drums,
Martin on piano, and myself. We rehearsed for three days in a studio
in Manhattan where we tried out those pieces Martin and I had chosen
earlier, eliminating a few more that did not seem to work, and perfecting
those that sounded good within the context of a bassoon-led jazz
quartet. Next step was three days of taping at a recording studio
about 20 pieces we had prepared with the quartet. After the first
day of recording, I was concerned about the artistic level of what
we had done and felt we could do better if we focused on fewer tunes
over the remaining days of taping. Fortunately, Martin Bejerano
talked me out of this. He urged me to hold firm, that it would be
better to record all the pieces we prepared, and that at the end
of the three days of recording, we would have enough material for
two CDs instead of only one. I'm very glad I listened to him since
we ended up with 21 pieces spread out over the two albums eventually
When did this take place?
The sessions were recorded early in 2004 at a studio in Brooklyn,
So 'Bebop Bassoon' was the first CD of the two that came out of
the recording sessions and which was released it in 2006.
Yes thats correct. Everything was recorded in 2004 and then
the two albums released at later dates on the Zah Zah label based
in Switzerland....'Bebop Bassoon' in 2006 and 'The Swingin' Bassoon'
Right thats great. I noticed another jazz album while browsing
on your website, Baroque Jazz, with Martin Drew, one of Oscar Petersons
drummers. What was that all about?
I had been living in London off and on for almost twenty years.
'Baroque Jazz' was a project I collaborated on with Bruce Boardman,
a pianist I was performing with at that time in the UK. We went
into a studio with a quartet of piano, bass and drums to record
samples from what would have been a full album of similar material
to send to various record companies for consideration. The idea
for this project came from Bruce Boardman who was a big fan of Jacques
Loussier, the French jazz pianist who had several best selling albums
featuring jazz versions of classical pieces. By luck, Martin Drew,
Oscar Peterson's drummer, was asked if he wanted to be involved.
He was enthused about the project and became part of the quartet
I used for the recording sessions. We arranged several sample pieces,
not so much from an improvisational standpoint, but rather with
a jazz feel built around Baroque pieces by such composers as Vivaldi,
Bach, Henry Purcell and William. Byrd. The results came out very
well, but unfortunately, we did not find a company for a commercial
release.. I have this sampler posted on my website, and hopefully,
some day it will see the light of day with a commercial release
as we had planned.
Oh yeah, that sounds like it would be a great idea; I think it would
be really good. There was one other that I came across, Jazz Suite
for Bassoon; tell us a little about this one?
This project was the reason I started to get serious about learning
how to improvise on the bassoon. This piece was written for me by
Steve Gray, a well known British composer, pianist, and orchestrator
who was at that time a member of the crossover group SKY led by
guitarist John Williams. We met at my flat in London and came up
with the idea of doing an original piece for bassoon and chamber
orchestra in a jazz setting, which resulted in 'Jazz Suite for Bassoon
and Orchestra.' I eventually did two performances of "Jazz
Suite for Bassoon' in Wales with the Welsh Chamber Orchestra and
also later in a combo version at Rockefeller University in New York
City. Since the piece had places in it involving improvisation,
I worked up several decent solos and wrote them out for the live
performances and the recording which we made in a London studio.
Keep in mind that over the years I had moved on from saxophone,
clarinet and flute, as well as other instruments, until eventually
the bassoon became my instrument of choice, but I was not a jazz
player on the bassoon yet. 'Jazz Suite for Bassoon' pushed and inspired
me to consider the idea of learning how to do this correctly...which
I then plunged into over the next several years and with a lot of
hard work to accomplish this goal.
I can imagine that it is tough, the instrument just looks tough.
So is it as tough as it looks?
It definitely is! And very interesting that you noticed and brought
this subject up. The average listener, and even many musicians and
critics, are not aware that anything played on the bassoon, compared
to a saxophone for instance (I can say this because I played and
studied all the woodwinds) is several times harder to execute, whether
just the melody and especially more so with improvising. A saxophone
is an instrument that you can play decently in one year of study
if you have some talent and do a lot of hard work. The bassoon is
more in the category of a violin or cello in that it can take a
decade to really master. Obviously therefore, what is played on
the bassoon in the jazz idiom is several times harder than on most
traditional jazz instruments as just explained. To simply state,
as some critics have said, that musicians prefer to play jazz on
the saxophone to the bassoon, is missing the point. The extreme
difficulty of playing jazz on the bassoon helps explains why there
are so few jazz bassoonists in the world, and that what a listener
is hearing, is much more difficult than if played on a saxophone,
clarinet, flute, etc.
I got that sense fairly quickly, that it was a tough instrument,
and was very impressed with the sound and range of sounds that you
produce. The range in the high register especially which I would
not have expected.
Are you a musician by the way?
I am a former drummer. (Laughs)
Ah okay! (Laughs) I have a friend in London, and every time we get
together to talk about music, he looks at me and says, I'm
not a musician, Im a drummer
But seriously, the instrument has a range of about three and a half
octaves. It goes down very low and up very high.
Thats impressive! Now getting to the point of mastering it,
I guess that requires those ten years of working on it, so that
you are able to hit the highs and lows smoothly?
I'm reminded very much of Gerry Mulligan. The sound you are coming
up with made me feel the need to put on a couple of his CDs,
and I thought wow, this cats really got a baritone saxophone
thing happening here, but hes got more range available to
Thats very astute of you. In England, a reviewer once described
me as The Gerry Mulligan of the bassoon. When I perform
jazz on the instrument, I don't really know what I sound like to
the listener. I'm the person performing, but its very subjective
as to what listeners make of what I am doing. Everyone who hears
me seems to hear something different; most listeners and critics
really like what I do, some don't quite understand it, and in a
few cases hate it. When I play jazz on the instrument, I'm thinking
more like a tenor sax player rather than a baritone sax player,
even though it comes out sounding lower and which explains why the
analogy is made with Gerry Mulligan's baritone sax.
Excellent, thats a nice visualization! As far as your sound
and style, you mentioned Charlie Parker as an influence. Coming
up through New York you really were surrounded by a state of Jazz,
its the jazz capital of the world I suppose, what other influences
do you have - on your short list?
This goes back to when I first started music, starting very late
in life when I was a senior in high school. I studied first clarinet,
then saxophone with Bill Sheiner in the Bronx, the same teacher
who taught Stan Getz a generation before me. I was young, about
sixteen or seventeen at the time, so everything I learned at that
time were the basics. I started listening to Stan Getz's albums
and also saw him play a few times in person. I would say that he
was my first real influence in terms of a jazz instrument. He was
a musical genius as everyone knows, with a photographic memory,
perfect pitch, and a virtuoso technique. I also listened to Charlie
Parker, Sonny Rollins, other saxophone players, and several trumpet
players as well,...Clifford Brown comes to mind. I try not to copy
anybody though, I listen to various players and try to incorporate
elements of what they do in my own style. By the way, I wound up
eventually with a degree on flute and took up the bassoon later
when I was in the West Point Band playing solo piccolo and flute....this
was at the age of 25.
Trying to take from the best and make it their own, thats
a good guide for all players. You have a very diverse sound, you
have some low growls and some high squeaks and squawks, are you
thinking of mixing it up a bit, is this a conscious thing?
Well to tell you the truth, I really don't understand fully how
I am able to improvise on the bassoon, nor do I know what I sound
like to others as already mentioned.. What I will say next should
interest you quite a bit in regard to this question. I assume you
are aware of Oliver Sacks, the author and world famous neurologist
who wrote among many other books 'Awakenings' , made later into
a movie starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro. I recently read
his latest best seller, Musicophilia, in which he discusses
the effect of music on people, ranging from people considered normal,
to extreme cases where Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and amnesia are
involved. He shows how music can reach people with such conditions
where other therapeutic techniques fail, and how the mind plays
it's role in this . But I also noticed that he never covered what
goes on in the mind when someone is improvising or creating new
musical ideas instantly, which is what jazz improvisation is all
about. I wrote to him about this and we started communicating back
and forth. I also sent him several of my albums, both jazz and classical,
to hear what I do on the instrument. Perhaps prompted by my questions,
he is now very interested in exploring how the mind works in the
creative process. I mentioned that quite honestly I really don't
know what goes on in my mind when I'm creating musical improvisations.
They just come out as fluidly as when speaking to someone. In speaking,
we don't think of every word, the individual words just come out
as part of a sentence. It seems to be the same thing with jazz and
improvising, where you are already thinking of full-blown ideas
many measures ahead of where you are at the moment, and that whatever
ideas you're thinking of come out of your instrument as if by magic.
The fingers just go down to produce these ideas and to me this is
a great mystery, I don't know how this happens. All I can understand
is that ideas pop into my mind, I hear where I'm supposed to go
in terms of these musical ideas as well as visualizing the chord
changes coming before they happen. So once again, I haven't a clue
as to why my fingers simply go down and play what I'm hearing in
my head. I hope to discuss all this with Oliver Sacks when we meet.
He plans to write about the results of our conversations in an essay
to be published, followed later in a book on the subject of the
creative mind in music and how it works.
When the music works, when it all comes together and there is that
amazing energy it is an incredible experience. That feeling of being
at one with the world, you can do no wrong. Have you a most memorable
musical moment, either with your quartet, your trio or any band
that you've played with?
Yes I have. It's actually a moment that happens over and over again.
The final piece performed at the end of my jazz concerts is Horace
Silver'sSister Sadie. This version includes two shout
choruses which are short riffs played against the theme. No matter
how well a concert is going, when you get to 'Sister Sadie', it's
the icing on the cake, leaving people cheering and with all the
musicians feeling that excitement along with the audience. It is
a very magical moment and always a highlight of every jazz concert.
Thats great, so the energy of the people, the audience interaction
actually adds to the energy, you feed of off that.
Oh absolutely, thats exactly right about the energy and which
brings back a memory of a concert I did in England some years ago.
I have performed quite a few concerts for music clubs all around
England,Wales and Scotland. Many of these music clubs have a long
history, going back sometimes for almost a century in some cases.
Their framework almost always is traditional classical music featuring
string quartets, violinists, pianists, cellists and so forth. Along
with classical recitals and jazz concerts, I have in many cases
also presented concerts divided between classical and jazz; the
first half being classical with bassoon and piano, and the second
half jazz with my quartet 'Bassoon and Beyond'. In this particular
concert I am thinking of, the audience as usual appreciated the
classical and crossover music presented in the first half...but
then went crazy for the jazz segment which followed.... they just
loved it! At the end of the performance, an elderly woman, using
a walker, came up to speak to me. She spoke of the jazz she had
just heard, I loved that music, it really made me want to
get up and dance. So even traditional music clubs with audiences
like this, who have never been exposed to jazz, and even if it is
the first time they are hearing it, let alone on a bassoon, they
always react with great enthusiasm. They simply love the jazz segment
of the concert, whether young, middle age, or the elderly as just
I've been to some concerts, very few thankfully, that people just
didn't know what to expect or they were expecting something entirely
different. At this one show, the audience was expecting a swinging
big band, instead an advent garde quintet shows up. The redeeming
part of this concert was the featured artist who happened to pull
of some incredible solos and literally pulled the gig out of the
fire. I heard from people after the show, Oh I was hoping
to hear such and such play this or that, I really didn't know what
to make of this new music, but I really liked that soloist, he was
so exciting, I'd like to see him on his own.
Well thats right, they wouldn't know what to make of it but
they still found something to appreciate. To slightly digress on
the subject of what people like or don't like when hearing a performance.
Some years ago I did a concert in England which was a classical
recital with piano. The performance received a somewhat negative
review from a particular critic and at the time it affected and
bothered me, I didn't understand what we had done wrong. The pianist
who accompanied me was friends with a well-known British ballet
master and he asked him what to make of this review. The ballet
master asked him, What did you see when you looked out at
the audience? My pianist said that the audience liked the
concert, that there was a lot of applause, that we came out for
an encore, and that the audience seemed to really enjoyed the music.
The ballet master then asked him what did he notice when he glanced
at faces in the audience. Were they smiling, and did their eyes
shine in approval?...to which my pianist said yes. He then said,
Remember, the eyes never lie. I always keep this comment
in mind, that 'the eyes never lie'. So if an audience looks like
they are enjoying the music with smiles, applause, and shining eyes,
then it doesn't matter what a critic might say, you are obviously
doing something right!
Thats very good, more young artists should pay attention to
that, some take what the critics say way to seriously. In a lot
of cases the critics are just trying to create controversy or so
In my case, ninety to ninety five percent of all the reviews to
date for my albums and performances are on the positive side, whether
jazz or classical and whether from critics, audiences or musicians
The negative reviews however are really horrific and often wipe
me out completely with no redeeming features. They simply don't
like anything I do.....my sound, my material, my concept, my phrasing,
my pitch, or anything they can pick apart. I often trace back who
such reviewers are and find out in many cases the reviewer is a
bassoon player. So there you are, fill in the blanks and come to
your own conclusions. My motto is to always try to do the best I
can, and if someone does not like what I do, that's fine with me,
just so I know I gave my very best.
Thats too much man, wow! At least there aren't that many bassoon
player critics out there. Getting back to the bassoon itself, it
is a very exotic looking instrument, how do you go about finding
the right instrument for you and is it challenging process?
You learn early on when studying the instrument that the best bassoons
made are the world famous Heckle bassoons, manufactured in Wiesbaden
Germany. I finally purchased mine after using other makes for several
years until I could afford to purchase a Heckle. I worked with a
bassoonist who knew a lot about key arrangements, and he helped
me fill in exact specifications needed for a superior instrument
on the Heckel order form. Thanks to him, I have an excellent Heckel
bassoon which I rely upon to produce the best results whether in
classical or jazz.
The bassoon is a double reed instrument, I've heard that the reeds
are very intricate and are also usually custom made. How do you
go about getting your reed? I don't think you can just pick them
up over the counter at your local music shop, or can you?
Thats absolutely correct, you can't simply pick up a reed
at random over the counter. I make my own reeds, and to learn and
perfect the reed making process takes in my opinion a good ten years
of doing and learning by trial and error. I've really upgraded my
skills in the last half a dozen years after making reeds for decades,
its a life long process. Whats really frustrating is
that every reed plays and reacts differently from day to day. So
you have to make adjustments on a daily basis when practicing or
performing. using a knife, sandpaper, and other techniques. An experienced
bassoonist will know instantly by blowing the reed and making a
'crowing' sound whether the reed will play comfortably throughout
the different ranges, whether it will give a bright sound or a more
mellow sound, will respond easily or might need more work to make
this happen, as well as other things...so the reed is very important.
It can make you sound like a great player or something a lot less
if the reed is not up to a high standard and which will prevent
you from playing at your best.
The reed itself is an odd looking thing, it doesn't look like any
of the other woodwind reeds I've seen. Its very different?
Yes it is...and also the instrument itself. If you look at books
on the history of the development of various instruments over the
years, the bassoon is generally considered the least evolved woodwind
instrument. Starting with early forerunners from the Renaissance
period, the modern bassoon is still a very complex instrument to
play. When you play a saxophone for instance, and want to jump an
octave, you simply press a key to jump the octave and use the same
fingerings. On a clarinet, you press a register key which produces
a note a twelfth higher but with the same fingerings. On the flute,
your embouchure will help lift you up an octave, again often with
the same fingerings. But on the bassoon, as you are move up into
the third register, you have to completely re-arrange your fingers,
there is no octave key and no shortcuts. That accounts for why there
are only a half dozen or so jazz bassoonists in the world...it is
much more difficult to attempt jazz on than all the other wind instruments.
And to the best of my knowledge, I am the only one of these handful
or so of jazz bassoon players who covers both classical and jazz
with recordings and in live performances.
Zah Zah is the record label that released your last two CDs.
Are you signed to that label, Zah Zah.
No I'm not signed exclusively to this label, which is part of Guild
Music in Switzerland. Guild's catalogue in such as classical, choral,
light music, world music, etc. is very extensive. I knew the owner
of the company some years before I made my jazz albums. When I later
had these jazz albums completed, he agreed to release them on Zah
Zah and they have done extremely well to everyone's satisfaction
Plans for the near future, are there more CDs in the works?
Yes. I recently had a meeting in New York with pianist Martin Bejerano
where we came up with some excellent ideas for future recordings.
Blue Bassoon would be a collection of blues in different styles
and might also be a double album project. Big Band Bassoon would
feature the music of the big band era and include the music of Benny
Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, Duke Ellington,
Stan Kenton, Les Brown and many others. Bassoon Goes Latin would
highlight bossa novas, salsa, ballads, and so forth. Bassoon and
Beyond , which is also the name of my quartet, would feature more
contemporary music. I have someone in Europe working on getting
a jazz label to consider releasing these in the future.
That sounds great, very exciting and I hope that all comes together
for you. I also hope we see the same quartet with you. I think Martin
Bejerano is great, when he lets go it is wonderful, an excellent
pianist. The whole quartet is great, the synergy of the band really
works well with you.
Martin and I have already agreed that we would use his band for
future recordings, so you can count on some excellent and exciting
results when they are made.
Daniel when you are not playing the bassoon what are you doing?
What are some of your other interests?
I'm an avid reader, I read about a hundred books a year, two books
a week if I can. I read books on history, politics, biographies,
essays, all sorts of subjects. My other passion is travel, I just
love to travel. I've been to about fifty countries all over the
world and hope to do a lot more in the future. There is something
about travel where everything seems so different from what you expect
to see and experience when you get to a particular place or country.
At one time, and within just a period of a month or so, I was first
in Bombay, India, then four countries in Africa, then traveling
up the Amazon river in Brazil on a ship, and then looking at the
skies above a fjord in Norway near the Arctic Circle. Once you have
traveled and seen other cultures, you can never see the world in
the same way again....for better or worse.
Daniel have you any advice for young players, or musicians in general,
artists just getting into the business or contemplating music as
I wish I could just simply explain how it happens but there really
is no blueprint. It's true that every so often somebody incredibly
talented comes along and you know they will be very successful even
before becoming famous. Take Wynton Marsalis for example. Even before
he came to study at Julliard, everyone in the New York music world
already knew about him thanks to the reputation which preceded him
and also his well known musical family. He went on to make classical
albums, then his jazz recordings and performances..., he just made
a very big impact from the very start. But unless you're talking
about this sort of a one-of-a-kind situation, or there is a powerful
mentor to open doors for you, its just a roll of the dice
as to what may or may not happen. Someone very talented comes along,
and through a set of circumstances, makes it very big. And then
someone equally talented, whether in jazz ,classical or whatever,
remains unknown and never get recognition. I think you just have
to go by your guts and believe in yourself. You never really know
what tomorrow might bring, so one must always keep moving forward
if you are serious about your ambition to succeed in music.
Can there be an in-between can you fit in somewhere in the middle,
be a sideman and make a decent living from the business, from your
Absolutely.... you've just described ninety five percent of everyone
in music. Its the way the world works. If you're a violin
player for instance, and unless someone very powerful in the music
world gets behind you, or perhaps money, luck and politics come
into play, you will have to aim for making a living playing in string
sections. After a lot of hard work studying the instrument, you
might wind up being accepted at a music conservatory such as Julliard,
The Curtis Institute, or Peabody. You then start to network with
people doing freelance orchestral work, operas, ballets, tours,
shows, etc., and if you stand out from the crowd, might eventually
become a member of a major symphony orchestra. But jazz as we see
in jazz, there are musicians who are very accomplished, quite talented,
who play for years and years doing the club circuits, but will never
command the fees of a Sonny Rollins or Chick Corea.
Than you are like a skilled laborer, as long as you can play your
instrument you have a job, you are guaranteed a certain sense of
Well thats right, but the security part of your comment is
a question mark. In the early stages of my career on bassoon, I
did a lot of orchestral playing around the New York area, subbing
one season with the New York Philharmonic. The Metropolitan Opera
also for one season, the New Jersey Symphony for two seasons and
so forth. I saw many orchestral players who became jaded. After
all, how many times can you play the Beethovens 6th symphony
where it almost becomes like an assembly line mentality and which
is radically different from somebody who is a soloist in jazz?
Thats too bad; the spirit of the art starts to lessen when
Well I agree with you to some extent, you're not wrong. But on the
other hand, some musicians make very good money playing in a major
orchestra along with teaching at a conservatory and giving private
lessons...... the income can be considerable. As I said earlier,
someone may be as skilled as the musician I'm describing, but for
one reason or another never had a break, maybe they didn't do well
at an important audition, might not be connected to the right contractors
or in certain music circles, and is left floundering around trying
to make a living.
Yea thats too bad.
It is, theres no rhyme or reason except for a few individuals
who are so much better than the flock, they just stand out on their
own. In other cases its like life itself, you just don't know
what is going to happen tomorrow.
True enough, true enough so what else is in the future for Daniel
The UK and world premiere of Robert Farnon's jazz-oriented bassoon
concerto Romancing The Phoenix will take place in February
of 2009 at Birmingham Town Hall. Robert Farnon, who is a legend
in the world of arranging and musical composition, became aware
of my skills in both classical and jazz. He had this concerto in
mind for me since it involved virtuoso playing which spanned classical
and jazz and includes improvisation.The premiere performance will
include two orchestras and a jazz rhythm section on stage, so you
may wonder how will I be heard above these massed forces. For my
jazz playing I perform on an amplified bassoon set-up. A microphone
is mounted on my bocal which then has a cord going to a pre-amp
on the floor, and then via another cord into an amplifier. The volume
and tone quality can then be adjusted on the amplifier. I can then
be heard above any ensemble, whether a jazz trio, concert band or
orchestra. Anyone who aspires to play jazz on the bassoon must get
the bassoon amplified or else run the risk of being drowned out.
That sounds wonderful, I would like to see that concert. Anything
else Daniel before we say good night.
I am looking forward to performing in many countries in 2008. Concerts
at festivals, jazz clubs and concert series are now being arranged
via my various managers in Greece, Switzerland, Scotland, Germany,
Italy, the UK, USA and with more countries in the pipeline. My jazz
albums are now heard on jazz radio stations in all these countries,
so there is now a ready-made audience situation where jazz fans
in these countries will want to hear me perform live.
It all sounds good Daniel, I wish you all the best for the future
and want to thank you for taking the time to talk with us.
Well thank you Paul, its my pleasure and it was really nice
to talk with you.
Paul J. Youngman KJA Jazz Advocate, December 2007, all rights
by kind permission of the author.