Daniel Smith Takes the Bassoon Where It Wasn’t Designed to Go

by delarue

Have you ever considered how weird it is that the bassoon is used so seldomly in both rock and jazz? The baritone sax has a similar timbre, and it’s pretty standard in funk and soul music and was in rock too, at least in the early years. Roy Wood famously used a bassoon in the Move and then ELO, and you’ll occasionally find a chamber pop band that employs a wind section in place of strings. But this magnificently cool instrument, with its unmistakably woody resonance, is just as rare if not more so in the jazz world. Daniel Smith is sort of the Charlie Parker of the bassoon, so how would it sound if he played blues on the thing? Pretty much like how he does his jazz gig. His latest album Smokin’ Hot Bassoon Blues is a follow-up of sorts to his 2010 album Blue Bassoon, a mix of bluesy tunes from the jazz catalog. In the case of this new one – streaming at Spotify – the songs date mostly from the 50s and 60s.

While Smith is the bandleader, he doesn’t hog the spotlight – although it’s easy to wish for more of him on this album. Technically speaking, he’s known for expanding his instrument’s range, sometimes with a tenor sax-like squawk, sometimes with a biting, ambered tone that the makers of the Arp synthesizer might have been trying to imitate back in the early 70s.

The album opens with Oscar Peterson’s Night Train, the bassoon more clustering and jazz-oriented than you would expect from a straight-up blues session, paired off against Efrat Shapira’s lively violin; a little later, Ron Jackson’s guitar goes in the same direction over the straight-up rhythm section of bassist Michael O’Brien and drummer Vincent Ector. The best songs here are the ones that Smith totally reinvents. Alongside Shapira’s acidic, acerbic violin, Smith’s take of Charles Mingus’ Better Get Hit in Your Soul gives it a rustic 20s hot jazz feel, right from where the whole band careens into it together. Once again in tandem with the violin, the bassoon adds a rustically haunting quality to Horace Silver’s latin noir piece Senor Blues. And they reimagine Duke Ellington’s C Jam Blues as a Jimmy Smith-style organ shuffle fueled by Greg Lewis’ fireworks on the keys and pedals.

The soul songs are also excellent. On Ray Charles’ What’d I Say, Smith’s sputtery lines perfectly capture its gruff appeal even before Frank Senior’s vocals enter the picture, with a scampering piano solo, and a latin tinge to the rhythm courtesy of percussionist Neil Clarke. Another Charles hit, Halleljah I Love Her So is surprisingly laid-back, with a tasty, shivery bowed bass solo. They also do an emphatic version of Moanin’, the Etta James hit. And the Nat Adderley groove Hummin’ has Smith mimicking the tremoloing sound of an electric guitar at the bottom of its range – then he goes in a more funky direction.

The rest of the album includes a purist take of Jimmy Smith’s Back at the Chicken Shack, a showcase for Lewis’ lickety-split lines; a swinging version of Sonny Rollins’ Blue Seven; a violin-fueled run through the latin blues of Joe Henderson’s Mamacita; and the most straight-up blues number here, Phil Woods’ Eddie’s Blues, which ironically was never sung by the guy it was written for – jazz vocal great Eddie Jefferson – because it doesn’t have lyrics. Throughout the album, Smith pushes the envelope in terms of both how much register and how much of a variety of tones the bassoon can produce. May he be a big influence on the next generation of players.