It’s easy to be put off by Daniel Smith’s The Swingin’ Bassoon, his second jazz album. It’s a strange instrument (for jazz), and a bass-oriented one that’s being played in a higher register than normal—making strange sounds. On the other extreme, its songs are some of the world’s most overtaxed swing and bebop chestnuts. “Summer Samba?” “A Night in Tunisia?” How worthwhile could it be?
Plenty. Alien though it is, Smith’s bassoon has a charming, anecdotal approach to phrasing, as well as a round, fat sound that still penetrates like a scalpel. He fascinates. As for the selections, it’s only natural that an instrument without much usage in jazz would first work its way through the repertoire: the bassoon has to pay its dues just as the musicians do. Smith has such profound and imaginative understanding of the music that faulting him for unadventurous material makes absolutely no sense.
Take, for example, “Well You Needn’t.” Smith’s quartet does a straightforward reading of the theme, he and pianist Martin Bejerano harmonizing on the Thelonius Monk melody. It’s deceptively simple: In his solo, Smith makes a full frontal assault on the chords, mapping the harmonic terrain in the jaw-dropping (if scattershot) fashion that Monk’s compositions, in particular, demand.
Smith’s approach, then, is intellectual—but not unemotional. His cock-of-the-walk swagger on “Hary Burner” is humorous and immensely pleasurable, while both “Mood Indigo” and Hank Mobley’s “Home at Last” have a sweet warmth that could evoke either nostalgia or sadness. Then there’s the kicky take on “Summer Samba,” which is just plain fun.
As for the sidemen, bassist John Sullivan is probably the most impressive. He imbues every song (“I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” most remarkably) with the harmonic sense that Smith brings to “Well You Needn’t,” although Sullivan avoids the leader’s all-out frenzy and instead picks off notes deliberately, like targets at a gun range. Bejerano’s approach is more lyrical, long strings of melody galloping out of his easy touch. Drummer Ludwig Afonso, swinging with precision as an accompanist, disappoints in his solos. The liners call him “dazzling;” Afonso can dazzle, and has dazzled elsewhere, but here he does not. His work is pedestrian, rhythmically and timbrally uninspired.
The bassoon is not without its shortcomings, either. Smith is too far away from the microphone on the recording, rendering him slightly thin and echo-heavy. It might be intentional, to prevent him from drowning out the rest of the band, but therein lies another problem: there’s no dynamic contour in Smith’s playing. He starts loud, ends loud, and is loud in between, not even softening on ballads. It interferes with the moods of some pieces and even with the meaty ideas he plays in his solo.
Despite these obstacles, though, The Swingin’ Bassoon displays a deeply gifted, thoughtful, and emotive musician in Daniel Smith. The bassoon might not become a permanent staple of jazz, but we can only hope that Smith does — He’s the kind of player that helps the music to thrive.