Sweet and Low from the Double-Reed

Michael Rabinowitz B&W

A range we are familiar with; perhaps analogous to the tenor sax or trombone. But a woody depth that has gloss and groove. Add to that, a phenomenal technique and keen talent, and you have Michael Rabinowitz on bassoon. Playing jazz? You betcha.

Michael’s aha moment came from a place of “why not?” Today he ambles through the chestnuts we know but have never quite heard this way. It’s fresh and new to the ear, surprisingly potable.

What is your musical training?

Studied piano at eight years old, with 11 years of private lessons. Then, clarinet from 11 years old, with five years of private lessons. I started bassoon at 16 years old, studying at the Neighborhood  Music School in New Haven, CT. Then onto the Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven during my senior year of high school.

College was SUNY at Purchase, where I received a BFA in Music Performance. I studied with Sal Mosca. I’d be remiss to leave out the great jam sessions that the Buster Brothers hosted in New Haven in the 70’s. I followed Eddie Buster like his shadow from gig to gig and that enabled me to get my feet wet. 

When and why did you pick up the bassoon?

The high school band needed a bassoonist. It intrigued me and I liked the different personalities on the instrument. Immediately I heard how effectively it was used in film scores.

What has been the reception to your new “Unchartered Waters”?

The reviews have been glowing internationally. It is my fifth recording as a leader and I wrote music in tribute to my recently passed mother and father. 

What are the highlights of this album, what makes it unique?

I played acoustically and became inspired to write some compositions in memory of my parents.

What does the name refer to?

The vacancy of and adjustment to not having my parents to share my life with. Definitely feeling like an emotional boat in a place I had never been before.

What is your favorite track and why?

The second song, “Harold’s Blues,” because of the different sections and more compositional elements.

How did you come together with these musicians in Bassoon in the Wild?

I have been playing with the guitarist Nat Harris and bassist Ruslan Khaine for over 10 years at various venues. We built a collective sound. Vince Ector was added recently and that made it a quartet.

Who or what was your inspiration when you first applied jazz to the bassoon?

Eric Dolphy and other tenor saxophonists like John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Eric took the bass clarinet and made it an expressive jazz instrument and it opened the possibility for me to present the bassoon in that way. 

What do they naysayers say, since it’s very new for people to think of the bassoon in terms of jazz?

There were and still are a lot of skeptics. When I started becoming comfortable with the language of jazz, listeners changed from skeptics to believers. There is great curiosity about the instrument because it is seldom heard as a lead instrument in classical and jazz. Many people can’t even identify it because it is hidden in the orchestra.

Talk about the Odd Couple Quintet, your latest CD, and what each musician brings stylistically.

OCQ was the brainchild of French hornist John Clark whom I have collaborated with in the Charles Mingus Orchestra for 15 years. John chose to arrange two Mozart horn concertos for rhythm section with John pretty much playing the melody of the concerto verbatim. I filled in the orchestral parts, some of which were improvised. Over past three years we have performed at universities and other venues. I have great respect for John and his writing skills.

Favorite venue in the Northeast?

The Jazz Standard and the Village Vanguard.

Place you have always wanted to perform?

The Village Vanguard.

What countries have you toured?

France, Holland, Spain, Italy and Germany. 

The low reediness is something new to hear in jazz. What questions do audiences ask you the most?

Why I chose this instrument to play. 

What is involved in the upkeep of the bassoon?

Pretty much like other reeds. Perhaps a little less because the bassoon has fewer keys and pads. An added skill of making reeds is a requirement of the bassoon and for some is an obsession. 

Do you spend a lot on reeds? Do they have to be replaced often?

Haha. I anticipated this question. I don’t go crazy with reeds as other bassoonists do. It takes about three to four hours to make five reeds that could last for a month depending on how much I play. There is a company called Legere which makes a synthetic reed that is not too bad. I have been experimenting with them.

What are the physical challenges in playing jazz on the bassoon- if any?

Because I am somewhat of a practice freak and I have been playing for 45 years, my right hand has developed some arthritis but fortunately it’s not too debilitating. Over the years they have developed sophisticated mic systems and pick-ups which I use to be loud enough to compete with brass and drums. I also experiment with effects such as envelope filters. 

Plans to write more and grow your presence in 2018?

Yes, I would like to put out another CD in the next year. I also have been playing in a duo with a cellist, playing primarily classical music. This type of music is great for my chops and reading skills.

Other comments?

I wanted to thank you for the opportunity for this online interview. My hope is to work more in Europe and stay active with my trio, quartet and duo.

Finally, I have been involved in conducting master classes for oboists and bassoonists who are interested in improvising and need guidance. It is encouraging to see young double reed players developing into first-rate improvisors.

For more information, visit https://www.jazzbassoonist.com/.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.

(c) Debbie Burke 2017

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