Even the thorough application of this great bassoonist, with as good a threesome as could reasonably be hoped for, can not establish serious claim for bassoon as a versatile horn in jazz. "Birk's Works" is nonetheless lovely... music not to laugh at, but smile with!
I don't much mind the shortish playing time (45 minutes) on a CD of newly recorded music. Too much superficial generosity includes tracks I'd rather not have, though there's obvious compositional ambition when some people haven't noticed how much padding they've allowed themselves. Takes me back to some old reviews worth collecting, which were justified laments about abuse of the extra playing time available. In a quartet set of standards like this, could there have been another one?
Due caution is warranted in the claim made for this set: that it's the first CD recording of a bassoon in a programme of unalloyed jazz. Garvin Bushell, also a notable jazz autobiographer, was a bassoonist as well as an all-round player of single-reed horns from the later 1920s, when he recorded with King Oliver. In the 1940s, he recorded on clarinet with Bunk Johnson, and for twenty years he was the professional bassoonist engaged to work with John Coltrane. Somewhere in the middle, I seem to remember he brought his bassoon in as a novelty, though his background as a 1930s clarinetist preceeded him.
For full-blown recorded bassoon solos, the pioneer was Illinois Jacquet, whom some idiots suppose was confined to the sort of raucous tenor saxophone he produced on Lionel Hampton's "Flying Home"; Jacquet in his early twenties was already the mighty alto saxophonist he proved to be on later recordings. Hampton shifted him to tenor, his blazing and screaming pioneered some wilder musical emulations, but he was a stupendous ballad tenorist. On some of his Prestige albums, he included occasional bassoon with rhythm performances (which Prestige now might think of compiling into a CD). I don't know how many performances he recorded on that strange horn, but wouldn't mind finding out.
Even Daniel Smith isn't necessarily such a proficient reedman as Jacquet was, and Smith is himself a giant, one of a few top-line European legit concert musicians to have gone right into jazz, as well as meeting other crossover challenges. He's not like another man I have reviewed, a gent who didn't know what not to play, and had his ideas of jazz come from glossies and general media rather than first-hand acquaintance. He is in company already praised elsewhere on this site; Martin Bejerano on piano and John Sullivan on bass, both members of the stunning Roy Haynes quartet (which until recently accomodated Marcus Strickland on reeds). Unlike Haynes, Ludwig Afonso, a seasoned pro, stays in the background. To an extent the pianist does so too, because of matters of pitching, phrasing and intonation raised by the bassoon. On John Coltrane's "Up Against the Wall", the bassoon's played with a big fudgy sound which resists possibilities of registering a beat precisely like a drumstick hitting a woodblock. Connect two soft items together and there's no clear sonic profile, and the drummer has to be careful, otherwise either he and/or the bassoonist can seem to be making nonsense together. The slight awkwardness at the start of the Coltrane number is intelligently handled by the drummer, soon being given a solo. And he is marvelous on "Birk's Works". Bejerano's solos are worth hearing, but his challenge in playing with a bassoonist (and this one takes on several items at a decent lick) is to avoid a clash of harmonics. His omission from the cast of "Up Against the Wall" was intelligent, and while the tact with which he plays throughout is admirable, he does really blossom when taking solos with the rhythm.
The hero here is the bassist, who holds everything together, and takes some pretty good solos of his own. He's the real pivot. He really bounds into solo in "Anthropology" sounding joyous and apparently put on his mettle shadowing and providing a push whether his notes are in unison, an octave away or in harmonic relation to Smith's. The pianist's ingenious substitutions, modulations and reharmonisations on "Blue Monk", which suits the bassoon, allow even more demonstration of the class of Sullivan and Afonso.
The nearest saxophone to the bassoon is probably not the baritone, but the bass saxophone, for breadth and non-incisive character. Come to think of it, arguably the greatest bass saxophonist, Adrian Rollini (who seems to have done little on that horn after about 1935) probably recorded on bassoon, as well as a few other items; no player of them would be insulted by hearing them called novelty instruments. And this is a recording with at least one foot in the realm of musical novelties, alongside trombonist Snub Moseley's slide saxophone, and the sarrusophone Sidney Bechet found and played in a New York studio over sixty years ago. It’s a bassoon wound round in a flat spiral, with a trumpet rather than oboe sort of mouthpiece. Yusef Lateef's oboe was probably more a novelty than some oriental items he played, but what I've heard of that, Jacquet's bassoon was better than novelty, since they chose the music to fit. Here the bold Smith just sets out to try a far-from-beginner's saxophone repertoire, and while he's not for folks wary of things that sound funny, the result's good-natured, and free from selfconsciousness. Displaying no such affinity or sheer musical capacity as Lateef's oboe did, his bassoonism brings out the best of the trio and especially John Sullivan. Maybe I don't mind the mere 45 minutes playing time, and certainly there was ample room here to make me feel good!