The bassoon is cool. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Although it typically sits mid stage with the rest of its woodwind buddies and plays second fiddle to the loquacious clarinet and oboe, the bassoon is capable of amazing sounds that add great richness and variety to orchestral colors and textures. Like Superman, a bassoon can “leap from tall buildings in a single bound” with its tantalizing ability to perform large interval leaps from low to mid register notes in a single breathe. A solo bassoon can also project great power and drama. It can shake, rattle and tremolo with glee or portray elegiac phrases with resonant, slowly evolving oscillations of its reedy, lyrical sounds. (Composer John Williams once remarked, in reference to his 1995 Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra, The Five Sacred Trees, that a bassoon sounds like it is haunted by the spirit of the tree from which it was made).
One of the most famous bassoon passages ever written is the opening to Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, (“Rite), in which Stravinsky scored a solo bassoon, with its sinuous and mysterious melody, to beckon “The Adoration of the Earth.” For the first minutes of the Rite, the solo bassoon takes center stage. It rises and falls (amongst its woodwind compatriots) with a kinetically charged flurry of notes, lighting the way for the dynamic swath of deep bass and string plunges that follow in its wake; like a scythe cutting down grass.
To hear the bassoon in all its lyrical glory, look no further than the audiophile masterpiece of the Rite performed in July, 1964 by conductor Antal Dorati leading the Minneapolis Symphony and recorded by the legendary Mercury Living Presence Team, headed up by the brilliant Wilma Cozart Fine. [Mercury Living Presence LP SR90253; CD 434331-2].
Cozart’s revolutionary three- microphone array, (along with Mercury’s innovative mobile recording studio), captures Dorati and the Minneapolis Symphony in all of their sparkling glory on Stravinsky’s feast for the ears. Especially on vinyl, the opening bassoon solo sweeps out of an airy Northrop Memorial Hall with a golden glow that portends all of the thunder of tympani; the bone-rattling waves of strings and the offstage trumpet flares that follow in Stravinsky’s monumental, incendiary creation.
[Also on the subject of Stravinsky, is the noteworthy new recording of Stravinsky’s roving Violin Concerto in D, performed by young virtuoso violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Vladimir Jurowski [Naive Records- www.naive.fr.) Here is a recording of beguiling lightness and precision, another audiophile gem to savor Stravinsky’s endlessly surprising artistry up close and personal].
The Boston Symphony Orchestra and its dynamic Principal Bassoonist, Richard Svoboda, have also taken to explore the bassoon’s piquant style as a solo instrument. In November, 2013, the BSO and Svoboda performed a world premier of American composer Marc Neikrug’s Concerto For Bassoon and Orchestra at Symphony Hall. Sitting in the audience on that Friday afternoon was a revelatory experience. Neikrug (b. 1946) composed his bassoon concerto to take advantage of every introspective and dramatic propulsive sound that the bassoon has to offer. In the fast sections of the piece, Svoboda’s bassoon darted and dashed between an effortless volley of sharply defined notes and a flurry of scales and punctuations. In the slow movement, Svodoba’s expressive bassoon conveyed Neikrug’s beautifully knotted phrases that unfolded in languid holds and soft, reedy colors. The sound of a solo bassoon in the golden acoustic of Symphony Hall was a treat for the ears, as the Great Hall lit up every dynamic contrast of bassoon notes, from its quiet nasally trills to its loud outbursts.
Svoboda’s gorgeous live performance with the BSO in Neikrug’s little gem reminds of another contemporary composer’s use of the solo bassoon for its richness of sounds and its exuberant bursts of colors. The inventive and legendary Gil Evans utilized the bassoon (and the contra- bassoon) in many of his original compositions scored for a swashbuckling big band sound. Evans’ prickly compositions can be heard in all of their stunning glory on Centennial [ArtistShare; www.artistshare.com], a beautiful, challenging recording where conductor, producer (and New England Conservatory alum) Ryan Truesdell conducts newly discovered works of Evans with a big band composed of some of today’s most spirited young musicians. [Truesdell and his compatriots will release a new live recording of Gil Evans’ pieces, entitled Lines of Color on 2/17/15. See www.artistshare.com for all details]. Take a listen to Evans’ sinuous creation, “Punjab” and listen carefully into the orchestral mix for Michael Rabinowitz’s bassoon as it joins first with Dan Weiss’ roving tabla and then with big brass and tuba colors to ignite the big strokes of the piece’s swirling, meditative melody. On “So Long,” Contra Bassoonist Alden Banta joins Rabinowitz in sourcing the deep wooden foundation under which tenor sax great Donny McCaslin soars above with his nervy urgency of tenor runs and big blows. (McCaslin headlines the Regattabar in Cambridge, MA. on February 12, 2015 – see www.regattabarjazz.com for details). Gil Evans was a master at combining orchestral colors into bold inventions and designs and Centennial illustrates how the bassoon’s unique soulful tone was a major player in Evan’s inventive Crayola Box of orchestral colors.
And lastly, who would have thought that a group of great musicians would get together to record an audiophile gem inspired by the bassoon as an instrument for playing great classic Blues and Swing? Leave it to the amazing Bassoonist, Daniel Smith, to do just that on his release, Smokin’ Hot Bassoon Blues (“Smokin”) [Summit Records – www.summitrecords.com].
Smith has an illustrious history of taking his classically trained bassoon into new, uncharted sonic territories. On Smokin’, Smith gathers together a group of stellar jazz and blues musicians and jumps right in to create a recording that bursts forth with virtuosity, musical comradeship of the highest caliber and above all, bassoon bliss. There is nothing that these guys cannot play or achieve in this rollicking, roving session that features Smith’s bassoon transformed into a Blues Machine. From Jimmy Forrest’s locomotive “Night Train” (with a great walking bass solo [all velvet and heat] from bassist Michael O’Brien) to Jimmy Smith’s hammering “Back At The Chicken Shack” and Sonny Rollins’ gliding “Blue Seven,” Smith’s bassoon careens and fires with tigerish glee. Smith moves up and down his instrument’s fluid registers with great attack and limpid speed: squeals, slurs, gruff hits and plunges- nothing is sacred when it comes to Smith landing a concatenation on his wooden companion. His bassoon can sound amorous and languid on smoldering holds, (such as on “Hummin”) or it can transport the furious swing of Charles Mingus’ “Better Get Hit In Your Soul” or Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin” with punctuated abandon.
What also elevates this recording is the brilliance of Smith’s compatriots, who individually and collectively shine in self-assured soloing and strong collective voices. Every cut brings gifts from these vital musicians: guitarist Ron Jackson cuts it loose whenever the spotlight falls on him; pianist Robert Bosscher and organist Greg Lewis make Jimmy Smith proud on every turn; Vincent Ector and Neil Clarke on percussion keep the groove sparkling (every wood block, conga and snare hit is captured light and airy) and violinist Efrat Shapira and vocalist Frank Senior shine as great foils to Smith’s roving bassoon. The recording is superb; its natural, up-close and crisp in image dimensionality with a layered soundstage and an informal, buoyant session feel that puts these swinging musicians in the limelight where they belong- powered by a bassoon, of course.