As a career choice, playing the bassoon outside of orchestral settings is bound to take a musician to some unusual places, but Paul Hanson’s musical journey has often leapt into the surreal. The Berkeley-raised double reed master has spent much of the past decade performing internationally with Cirque du Soleil, including a four-year run in Japan that ended prematurely when the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown put a damper on diverting spectacles.
Hanson makes his first East Bay jazz performance in nearly a decade Friday at the Jazzschool with a sensational band led by capaciously inventive guitarist/composer Joel Harrison, a former Berkeleyan now based in Brooklyn. Also featuring Pat Metheny Group trumpeter Cuong Vu, bassist Kermit Driscoll, and drum star Brian Blade, the quintet is loaded with world-class improvisers, but designed for Harrison’s singular compositional blend of folk-like melodies, lapidary textures and expansive harmonies.
“Joel’s a really good writer,” Hanson says from his home in American Canyon. “He knows how to blend instruments well to get an ensemble sound. It’s not just about the soloist, where you play the head and then everybody goes off and burns. Melodies are very important in his music, and for some reason guitar and bassoon seem to work really well together.”
Harrison has made Hanson a central part of his evolving sound since his third album, 1997’s Range of Motion (Koch Jazz), an orchestral octet session that also featured reed expert Paul McCandless, a founding member of the pioneering world jazz ensemble Oregon. He followed up with 2001’s Transience, an album on which Hanson provided the sonic link between two distinct bands and concepts.
“For me there was something so unique about Paul’s voice, and the sounds he gets out of the bassoon,” Harrison says. “I’m always looking for something to help me stand apart from the crowd. He’s the master of a remarkable instrument. The bassoon has a huge range, way down past where a saxophone can go, and it can also play really high. With his effects, Paul can create a really spacious feeling with a lot of ambiance. He can make a group sound like chamber music ensemble or a hard rock band.”
Hanson isn’t the first person to turn the bassoon into a credible vehicle for jazz-related improvisation. Tenor saxophonist Yusef Lateef dabbled with the horn, though he explored the oboe much more deeply. On the avant garde side, Ken McIntyre delved into the instrument, while Karen Borca has devoted herself to it. And the great tenorman Illinois Jacquet recorded a convincing version of “Round Midnight” on bassoon back in 1969.
Over the past quarter century however, Hanson has brought the double reed instrument into areas where it’s seldom, if ever, gone before, combining a commanding improvisational sensibility with funk, classical and an array of Eastern European and West African traditions. Playing without electronic devices, he produces a sound that’s full, lithe and flexible. When Hanson alters his tone electronically, the bassoon can take on eerie or ethereal timbres. Either way, the results are often breathtaking, as he glides and swoops from the horn’s piping upper register to its mellow burnished depths.
Hanson grew up in the right place to dedicate himself to an unfashionable horn. No one has come up with a good explanation for it, but the Bay Area seems has nurtured numerous musicians doing unprecedented things on their instruments. Considering sui generis players like mandolin master Dave Grisman, oboe virtuoso Paul McCandless and steel drum superman Andy Narell, Hanson is in good company.
His virtuosity brought him to the attention of renegade banjo star Béla Fleck, who featured Hanson on five tracks of the Flecktones Grammy Award-winning album Outbound and on a spate of concerts. The bassoonist released several albums of his own, most recently 2008’s Frolic In the Land of Plenty (Abstract Logix), a stylistically diverse project ranging from Brazilian choro and Balkan grooves to jazz rock fusion and supple jazz funk.
Hanson became fascinated by the bassoon in grade school and strived to master it and various saxophones while attending Berkeley High. He continued his studies at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and for the first decade of his career he split his time between bassoon, alto and tenor sax, playing all three instruments with Peter Apfelbaum’s Hieroglyphic Ensemble. He’s performed in a tremendous variety of situations, from Boz Scaggs and Ray Charles to The Klezmorim and the Paul Dresher Ensemble. His performance with Harrison’s Spirit House serves as a reintroduction to a player who’s ready to start exploring the unbounded spaces where traditions bleed into each other.
“Oregon was a big influence on me, where they really hit a combination of jazz and classical that gives you the textures and moods on the European side and at the same time swings and leaves room for people to improvise on,” Hanson says. “Ultimately, the bassoon is my voice. It’s the way that I hear things.”
Ben Stolorow at Garden Gate Creativity Center, tonight, Thursday: Pianist and UC Berkeley alumnus Ben Stolorow, a graceful improviser given to langorous melodicism, plays a duo concert with trumpeter Ian Carey, a tremendously resourceful player with a gorgeous tones and subtle wit, tonight at the Garden Gate Creativity Center, 2911 Claremont Ave.
Sara Leib at the Jazzschool, Saturday: Los Angeles jazz singer Sara Leib, who possesses a plush sound and a brimming musical imagination, makes a rare Bay Area appearance Saturday at the Jazzschool with pianist Dan Zemelman, bassist John Shifflett and drummer Jason Lewis. I reviewed her impressive second album Secret Love last year for the California Report a tremendously confident session in which she matches wits with heavyweights such as pianist Taylor Eigsti, saxophonist Dayna Stephens, and drummer Eric Harland.
Brittany Haas at Freight & Salvage, Tuesday: And Peninsula-raised Nashville fiddler Brittany Haas, who gained national attention as a young teenager with Darol Anger’s Republic of Strings and went on to help found the influential newgrass band Crooked Still, returns to the Bay Area for a Freight & Salvage performance on Tuesday with a stellar trio of equally formidable young players. She’s joined by guitarist Jordan Tice, 21, an innovative flatpicker and prolific composer, and Punch Brothers bassist Paul Kowert, who recorded as a member of Mike Marshall’s Big Trio. They’ll be playing original music, mixing in occasional vocal numbers with three-part harmonies amidst their blazing instrumentals.
Viviana Guzman in Berkeley, Saturday: Chilean-born Bay Area flautist Viviana Guzman performs Saturday as part of the Trinity Chamber Concerts series, 2320 Dana Street, with pianist Frank Levy, bassist Ken Miller and drummer Alan Hall, interpreting works by Fauré, Khatchaturian, Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, Piazzolla, and Guzmán.
Alan Senauke at Freight & Salvage, Wednesday: Long before Alan Senauke devoted himself to Zen Buddhism, he was an acolyte of American roots music, with a thriving career as a folkie guitarist and vocalist. His responsibilities as vice abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center don’t leave much time for music, but Wednesday at Freight & Salvage he’s celebrating the release of his first album in a decade, Everything Is Broken: Songs About Things As They Are. Joined by a host of long-time confederates, including Jon Sholle, Chad Manning, Eric and Suzy Thompson, and Kate Brislin (who are all featured on the album) Senauke will be interpreting traditional tunes and songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, and Bernice Johnson Reagon.
As Senauke sees it, his experience as a musician laid the groundwork for his practice as a Buddhist. “I was always playing social music with people, and I felt like that was really my first important training in how to pay attention to what’s happening moment to moment,” Sanauke says. “The story of any given song comes from some place in somebody’s life, usually a very compressed, particular vision of the world. In a sense that way of looking at a particular situation or palce is what I’ve been trained to do in Zen Buddhism.”
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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