Saturday, January 10, 2009

Do you hear what I hear?

The easy answer is “not likely.” No two people hear things exactly the same. But what is it that draws we musicians and/or listeners to a particular instrument, grouping of instruments, or the specific sound of a player or singer over others? Why might our LP and/or CD collections be weighted more towards one instrument than another?

The subject came up last weekend at a regular brunch session with several friends. One is not keen on solo performance of any kind. He might tolerate a trio now and then, but prefers a quartet or quintet with horns. With certain exceptions like J. J. Johnson or Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson, he doesn’t really care for trombone or vibes either. Yes, he’d buy in to some variation of the joke used for everything from lawyers to trombonists: “What do you call 1,000 (trombonists) (lawyers) at the bottom of the ocean?” Answer: “A good start.” BA DUM BUM.

But why do people choose, or like, particular instruments or instrumentalists or singers?

I listened later that afternoon to a new CD with a quartet whose leader plays bassoon (Daniel Smith, Blue Bassoon). To my ears, the low-pitched, double-reeded distant cousin to the clarinet sounds like a cross between bass clarinet and baritone sax – with the expressiveness of neither.

While best known in classical circles, the bassoon has a rather obscure place in jazz, with its best-known occasional players including saxophonists Frankie Trumbauer, Garvin Bushell, Yusef Lateef, Illinois Jacquet and Frank Tiberi.

Dan Smith likely wants to take his place as a generational successor. His CD is brimming with terrific jazz material. There’s not a tired tune among the 13 pieces by 13 of the greatest writers and performers in jazz and the blues. But there is a bassoon in the mix. And for that reason, it doesn’t make me groove to the music, despite many fine performances by the other instrumentalists.

So I ask again: Why do people choose, or like, particular instruments or instrumentalists or singers?

Please weigh in with your own thoughts.

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