Bassooner the Better Jazzing things up a little

Souna / Zurna, Shawm, Curtal / Dulcian, a few different stages of the Bassoon, and a Contrabassoon, from left to right.

Double reeds have been around since the Middle Ages. These double reeds were known as shawms, which is an instrument with a conical bore used in Europe. Shawms achieved peak popularity during the Medieval and Renaissance period. Therefor a lot of music was written for them in that time.

During the 16th century, a variety of shawms were made ranging from soprano to double bass. As Renaissance music grew more complicated, composers wanted an instrument that could play low and loud. Since the lower sounding shawms, also known as bombards, would have been made too long (as long as three meters of tubing) the dulcian was created.

The word dulcian meant “sweet sounding” in Latin. What they wanted was a longer tubing but shorter instrument, so what they did was they made it so the bore does a U-turn at the bottom of the instrument. The dulcian came in six sizes ranging from as short as 15” to as long as 4’9”.

During the 17th century, the French began making the bassoon which is just a four-joint construction of the dulcian. In addition to creating the four parts, they also began adding more keys to make the instrument easier to play in tune, more balanced, and much more responsive.

Similar to how the bassoon evolved from many different stages, the ways bassoons are used and written for have also changed.

During the Baroque period, the bassoon was first used to reinforce the bass line and act as the bass for the double reed choir. It was also used to play the basso continuo. Composers such as Boismortier, Corrette, Galliard, Zelenka, Fash, and Telemann, wrote demanding solo and ensemble music for the bassoon by midcentury, but it was still mostly part of the bass line in an orchestra setting.

The use of bassoons in the concert orchestra was sporadic until the late 17th century when the classical era emerged. This was when double reeds began to become more of a standard instrument with their own individualized parts, opposed to just doubling the bass line.

As the difficulty and role changed for the bassoon, so did the ensembles that were common for bassoon.

Ensembles that are more known to have bassoons today are orchestras and wind ensembles, both of which have mostly two bassoons, a contra when needed, and band which usually have two or more bassoons. In addition to the big ensembles some smaller ensembles that contain bassoons are wind quintets, and bassoon duets, trios, quartets, and bassoon bands. In the larger ensembles, bassoons play a role ranging from bass lines, to harmony, to melody, to some solos in orchestral pieces. The bassoon plays a much larger exposed role in the wind quintet, getting more of an independent part whether it is the bass line or the melody. Of course, in bassoon based ensembles, bassoons play all the roles. On the other hand, there is the genre of jazz that few people know bassoonists take part in.

Jazz bassoon first began appearing in the 1920's. In 1928, there was The Ingénues playing the song, Band Beautiful, who incorporated a jazz solo for bassoon. This band features the band singing, playing several different instruments including the banjo, and at the end the bassoon is featured in a solo as well as a few other instruments. Before its solo at the end, the bassoon is playing mostly a bass line. (7:16 Jazz bassoon solo)

After the 1920’s the bassoon was used scarcely in jazz as symphonic jazz fell out of favor with the public. During the 1960's, artists such as Yusef Lateef and Chick Corea started to incorporate bassoon into their recordings. Lateef's diverse and eclectic instrumentation saw the bassoon as a natural addition.

In this video of Lateef’s album “Around the World,” he is pictured with a few of the instruments he played. Those instruments were a tenor sax, flute, oboe, bassoon, bamboo flute, and the shenai. In the song, which he composed, “India” the bassoon and the shenai are playing over a rhythm section and a piano. The introduction does not begin in a meter or key. He lets the shenai, which is a subcontinent double reed instrument, solo before the rhythm section comes in with a slow steady beat. Lateef liked to sustain notes on the shenai for as long as possible. In this piece, you can hear the long-sustained notes of both double reed instruments.

Lateef liked to take sounds and instruments from around the world and put them into his music, and fortunately bassoon just so happened to be an instrument that he played and incorporated into his jazz compositions.

On the other hand, Corea employed the bassoon in combination with flutist Hubert Laws.Not much is said as to why Corea used bassoon but he wrote a jazz piece for flute, bassoon and piano. It was the one piece in the album that features bassoon with flute, and it was one of eight pieces that were composed and released by Atlantic Records in 1973.

Another musician that had a more involved solo for the bassoon was Frank Tiberi. Tiberi primarily played clarinet, but also played bassoon, flute, alto and tenor sax. Frank Tiberi was asked to lead Woody Herman’s band before he passed away. Frank had played “Where Is Love” featuring Frank Tiberi on bassoon in duet with Gregory Hertbert on alto flute with Woody Herman’s band.

In the video shown you can see that the bassoon was the soli with the alto flute, and it wasn’t playing a bass line or a harmony, but was the leading voice. Woody Herman was known to feature instruments not traditionally associated with jazz. By listening to the piece, you can tell that the jazz band is playing softer than normal because of the nature of the piece, but also because the bassoon is not a very powerful instrument even when it is amped. The mixture between the two has a very sweet sound when played together, but also beautiful when played separately. Woody Herman knew how to mix different timbres from different instruments for jazz.

The video above is of Paul Hanson, who is an award-winning classical bassoonist and also jazz saxophonist who brought playing bassoon to another level. "He sought to expand the lexicon of the bassoon while creating a unique musical voice." Paul is a jazz/fusion bassoonist, who is an incredible improviser on the bassoon. If you watch the video above, you can hear how extremely talented he is and how well he gets around the instrument.

Besides Paul Hanson, another person who has been successful in getting jazz bassoon more known is Ray Pizzi, a writer and performer of jazz on bassoon. He frequently performs in the jazz style in movie scores such as the first Star Wars movie playing in the Cantina band, and in the soundtrack of Predator 2. He has also performed on television commercials and other sound tracks.

People may not know it, but there are many jazz bassoonists out there even though jazz bassoonists are uncommon and sometimes even laughed at. What’s even more uncommon, are rock bassoonists. In the genre of rock music, there was Lindsay Cooper who used the bassoon in art rock band. Henry Cow and Brian Gulland played bassoon in the Medieval-influenced progressive rock band, Gryphon. The two bands were most active during the 1970s. In the 1990s, a bassoonist named Aimee DeFoe played bassoon in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania indie rock band Blogurt. Although jazz bassoonists are rare, rock bassoonists are even rarer and even I don’t know if they’re still a thing. Maybe one day, rock bands will begin to reemerge from the past and bassoonists will try to dabble in playing rock music. Who knows, for now, the use of jazz bassoon has been growing.

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Created with images by hipwithat - "20131213-IMG_2252.jpg" • MIH83 - "background old fashioned music"

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