Daniel Smith – Blue Bassoon – Summit DCD 530, 47:55 ****:
(Daniel Smith – bassoon; Martin Bejerano – piano; Edward Perez – bass; Ludwig Afonso – drums; Larry Campbell – guitar (tracks 5 & 10)
Treading new ground in the jazz realm is not as common as it once was. Bassoonist Daniel Smith, however, is doing something unique. Smith – who has recorded extensively in classical music – is revealing how the bassoon can be an important lead instrument and can be a dynamic part of the jazz field.
During Blue Bassoon, Smith and his quintet make clear that bassoon – although a novel instrument in a jazz context – can do wonders with blues-inflected jazz compositions. With skill and talent the reedy and bass-tinted bassoon can swing, reach high and low notes, exhibit nuanced phrasing and timbre, and expressively perform on blues, bop and more. As Smith states in the album booklet, “My goal is to establish the bassoon as a valid instrument for jazz soloing.” Despite restrictions and with a lot of hard work, Smith has attained his objectives.
Smith’s repertoire is a well-chosen selection of all-blues material, ranging from Joe Zawinul to Charles Mingus and from George Shearing to Lee Morgan. Each piece is a showcase for what the bassoon can do but the program is also a fine display for Smith’s hand-picked ensemble. The four musicians include pianist Martin Bejerano, part of Roy Haynes’ band; bassist Edward Perez, who has played with dozens of fellow New Yorkers; Spyro Gyra drummer Ludwig Afonso; and guitarist Larry Campbell, best known for backing Bob Dylan as well as Elvis Costello and BB King.
Smith and company start off with two classics, Horace Silver’s “The Jody Grind” and Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce.” Perez begins the rhythmically buoyant Silver song with a solo bass intro and the others quickly move in with memorable results. Bejerano offers some sharp melodies, and Afonso unveils his vigorous ability while Smith defies expectations with an assertive performance. Smith demonstrates his reverence for Parker with a note-by-note recreation of Parker’s four-chorus solo on “Billie’s Bounce,” and then follows with his own singular improvisation. Anyone who thinks bassoon cannot do bop will be surprised by this track.
Campbell joins on two blues standards. On B.B. King’s jaunty “My Baby’s Gone” he supplies rakish acoustic slide guitar while Smith presents an appropriate earthiness and a trumpet-like tone, and the rhythm section ticks along like a well-oiled machine. Campbell is also heard on Robert Johnson’s Delta blues exploration “From Four Till Late,” arranged as a supple shuffle. While Campbell replicates Johnson’s six-string expression Smith contributes a like-minded rural style.
Along with Parker, the group also covers other sax players with engaging effects. Cannonball Adderley’s “Sack of Woe” retains a soulful anxiety. The arrangement gives room for optimism, particularly during the bridge, but tension is still consistent. Coltrane’s astute but involved “Equinox” is a prominent cut, with impressive solos from Smith, Perez and Bejerano. The closing tunes, Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” and Sonny Rollins’ “Solid,” are also highlights that feature lyricism and leaping energy.
Smith’s mission to stretch beyond the bassoon’s perceived limitations is an ambitious endeavor and with Blue Bassoon he succeeds by proving what can be accomplished. Jazz listeners may initially be curious in how Smith achieves his vision but most will discover more than an unusual approach to jazz instrumentation – they will find a confident collection of enjoyable music.
1. The Jody Grind
2. Billie’s Bounce
3. Things Ain’t What They Used to Be
4. Scotch and Water
5. My Baby’s Gone
6. Sack of Woe
7. Nostalgia in Times Square
9. The Double Up
10. From Four Till Late
11. Break Out the Blues
— Doug Simpson