“What the amazing Paul Hanson does on bassoon -- an exceedingly difficult instrument to play and one almost exclusively associated with classical music -- is akin to what other innovators like guitarists Charlie Hunter and Stanley Jordan, banjoist Bela Fleck and bassist Jaco Pastorius have done with their respective instruments.”
- Bill Milkowski, Jazztimes, Jazziz
When I toured Japan with Blast II: MIX in 2008, I had the privilage of meeting jazz bassoonist Paul Hanson. Our cast was invited to see a preview of a new Cirque Du Soleil show at Tokyo Disnyland called ZED. Baton twirler extrodinare Seishi Inagaki was a MIX cast member in 2006 and was now performing in ZED. Through this connection we not only were invited to watch the show, but also got to hang with the cast after as well. It was at this hang where I met Paul. In the show, he's a cast member, part of a large group of extremely talented performer, so it wasn't until later until I learned what he could really do on bassoon.
Paul Hanson is one of the most unique and talented musicians you will ever come across. He is also extremely humble and grounded. After I contacted him, Paul agreed to let me interview him for my blog. It was a great experience for me just to be able to ask him questions. I found his answers open, honest, and incisive. I hope you enjoy reading the interview as much as I had asking the questions.
DE: What was your musical experience growing up? What instrument did you start on? And how did that progress toward other woodwind instruments?
PH: My dad was a music teacher and my mom was a very good amateur pianist. I used to hear her practice all the time and it was a great thing to have growing up in San Francisco (we moved to Berkeley in 1969). Also in the 60's in San Francisco - my parents were a bit 'progressive' so we listened to The Beatles, Rolling Stones, all the folk singers, Bach and a lot of other classical music. I first started on guitar at 4 years old. I quit when we moved to Berkeley and my new guitar teacher wanted me to convert as he was a Jehovah's witness. So I stopped that and started clarinet in 4th grade, alto sax in 6th grade, bass clarinet in 7th grade and bassoon in 10th grade.
DE: What got you into jazz? What made you you decide to fuse jazz with bassoon?
PH: I got into jazz listening to Charlie Parker, John Coltrane (rocked my world) and MyCoy Tyner. Also when I was at Cazadero Music Camp in 1974, I walked by a camp counselor's building and my mind was blown by Chick Corea's Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy. I knew then and there that this was amazing music and I HAD to follow up, find out who it was.
Our high school jazz band was very famous at the time - Berkeley High Jazz Band from the late 70s. Dr. Phil Hardymon was the director and the reason I'm a musician today. We looked like little hippie kids/ghetto kids but sounded like Woody Herman's band. We were really good at that time for a high school band. Phil was one of the first people to introduce jazz education to elementary school children and in the early 70's the Berkeley Unified School District music program was the TOPS. In our jazz band were people like Benny Green, Danny Wilensky, David Tull, Joshua Redman (later on), Dave Ellis (later on), Rodney Franklin, and Peter Apfelbaum. These are all people who are working today and doing lots of things in the jazz world.
At the same time my band director gave me a bassoon (Mr. Nick Xenelis) and I loved it because of the range and the sound. I really got into it but in a classical way. I wasn't into improvising yet. I won a big competition in high school (Pepsi Young Musician's Award) and that seemed to be the way things were going. I had a difficult last year of high school due to my family going through some difficult times. I didn't go right to conservatory but spent two years figuring out what I wanted to do. At one point, either in my last semester of high school or right after, I got my mind blown again by Jimi Hendrix. I had heard him before and didn't think much of him, but for some reason later on I completely got it - albums like CRY of LOVE and Band of Gypsys. At some point, and I was still playing bassoon (actually I played in the Berkeley Symphony way back around 1980 when Kent Nagano was just starting out), I thought - man it would be cool to play bassoon in funk/rock as the range of the instrument and the multi-phonics sounded so cool when you stuck a mic down the horn. Then I wizened up and took my parents' (now divorced) offer to go to the New England Conservatory for one year. So I did.
DE: You majored in bassoon performance, correct? Did you want to be a classical bassoonist?
PH: In the beginning at NEC I was a Third Stream Studies major as I loved all kinds of music. However, once there I realized that Third Stream for me meant all the people who weren't good enough for either the jazz program or the classical program went to the Third Stream program. That may or may not be a fair assessment, but it was what I had figured out for myself.
So, after not too long, I changed my major over to classical bassoon. I was deep into playing electric however - I had this little AKG mic on a mic cable stuck down into my horn that would go through this ancient Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder and then into a Roland Jazz Chorus amp. The reason for the reel-to-reel was that it had a NASTY tube preamp inside that made the most insane overdriven bassoon sound on earth. I used to shred it up in the practice rooms at NEC. People would line up 3 rows deep wondering what in hell was going on. I didn't know this at the time. I did stick to my classical studies, and at the end of the first year in Boston, I was recruited by Steve Paulson of the San Francisco Symphony and the SF Conservatory to come back home to that place.
I never wanted to become a classical bassoonist in an orchestra. I just wanted to get a good foundation so I could do what I did later on - be a unique player on the bassoon and play it in other kinds of music outside the orchestra. I wish I had gotten my masters in that or something else at the time (mid 80's), but you have to understand the situation at the time, considering my other skills as a sax player. While at the SF Conservatory, I had gigs 5 nights a week in R & B bands. I was always leaving a conservatory orchestra concert in my tux and a beat up car to my other sax gigs. I was the sax soloist on Eddie Money's TAKE ME HOME TONIGHT. So, in the mid 80's there was tons of sax gigs in rock bands and other bands and I was working towards that. School was not going to help me with that. Now, times are different. It helps to have lots of degrees as there just isn't the live music scene locally like before. Let me put it to you this way: in 1983 gigs paid $50-60, a casual paid maybe $120. Now, bar band gigs pay $50-60. Not much has changed except the price of living and there are hardly any gigs to do. It helps to be young and part of a 'young' crowd, but it's a completely different time these days.
So it would have probably been a great idea to get a masters in jazz performance, but hardly any of those degrees existed. The same freelance bassoon players that were playing in all the local SF orchestras back in 1985 are still active doing the same gigs with just more younger bassoonists competing for the same $100 per service jobs. That was what my wife was doing; she's a bassoonist/contra player and she was doing that as well as working at Forrests Music for 15 years before we left here. If I had known what would have happened to the music business in the 21st century I might have stayed in school longer and gotten some type of other degree. Now everyone I know is trying to get into teaching as the gigs are just so hard to come by. I would have liked to get my Masters at CAL ARTS, but we had our son back in 2005 and I had to get work. That's when Cirque came into my life and I played saxes, bassoon, EWI, percussion and keyboards (a bit) on SALTIMBANCO for a year in 2006. But my teacher, Steve Paulson, ALWAYS tried so hard to 'convert' me into being a classical player and play in an orchestra. I knew after my senior recital that it was all possible. I saw myself in the future doing that and it could have happened. But I loved improvising way too much as I also loved jazz, fusion, and all that stuff way too much not to follow what I had to do. I made a lot of mistakes along the way, but I made it here.
DE: After college, how did you make a living? Solely on gigs or did you work your way up to a full time musician?
PH: After college, I made a living playing. I had a few temp jobs: I cleaned swimming pools for a few months in 1989 (my last real JOB), and I worked as a grunt for a construction company for a few weeks in the mid-80s. But I played a lot of sax. I played in a really bad circus. I played bassoon in a production of L'Histoire du Soldat (Stravinsky) with the Flying Karamozov Brothers in New York. I continued to play in redneck R & B bands and I played casuals. I did a lot on sax. I started playing in the Paul Dresher Ensemble (a contemporary music ensemble specializing in playing electro/acoustic new works) from 1991-2002. I just played the hell out of the sax and I should probably continue to do so when I get back. Lots of people don't know about my sax playing because I never felt like recording it. I played with The Temptations, Eddie Money, Boz Scaggs (in 1998), Randy Jackson (of American Idol fame), Tom Coster (Santana), Steve Smith( Journey), tons of people. The one thing I did wrong in life is play down my sax playing, both to myself and to others; because I wanted to do something so bad with the bassoon I kind of overlooked the fact that I had a lot of experience playing sax for a living. Nothing beats a great blues gig where you aren't even really playing jazz, you're playing BLUES and staying true to the groove and not using too many notes. I used to make my living doing that.
There were 3 big developments in my bassoon career that made big things happen for me. Paul McCandless (oboist in Oregon) heard me on my first CD (the Last Romantics-out of print) and found out about me. He hooked me up with the IDRS conference in Rotterdam in 1995 and I went and played over there. That helped a lot and Paul helped again by hooking me up by having me sit in with the Flecktones a few times before they had me join them on a few tours and a couple of albums. After that, I had kids with my wife and my mom died. I inherited a house and in some ways I took the pedal off the metal.
If there's one piece of advice I have for musicians: it's NEVER think you have it made. You always have to keep moving forward and keep going after it. I was tired in 2001 of doing all those sax gigs when I wanted all along to play bassoon in bands like the Flecks. I dropped some things out of my schedule while I enjoyed the birth of my daughter Bella. But at the same time, 9/11 happened and changed the landscape for touring bands completely. I found myself more and more out of the loop of local bands because I had been gone doing bigger things out of town with Bela and with other people. I used to teach at a local jazz school (the Jazzschool) and had a great time teaching jazz theory and leading ensembles. I went away because I had a great offer to be a bassoon professor for one semester at Ithaca College of Music. When I got back to Berkeley after my one semester stint, I found that someone had taken my place and I was no longer needed at the Jazzschool. So this is why it's important to have the degrees; it might make some difference down the line, but it's a completely different world than what it used to be. I'm just glad a good friend, who had found himself in the same similar situation auditioned and got into Cirque Du Soleil, told me about Cirque. So, I auditioned. It took awhile, but I toured with Saltibanco in 2006. Then the gig they REALLY wanted me for came along - this gig here at ZED.
What's sobering about being a musician is that I'm paid very well for this gig; it competes with being a member of the SF Symphony or LA Phil or any big orchestra. In some ways it's better. It's amazing-but I was into music for MUSIC and the love of it. I was extremely lucky to make the living I did coming up as a young cat. Very lucky.
I should also add that I am extremely lucky in addition to whatever skills I have somehow learned. Don't think there wasn't also a lot of time where I wondered how I was going to pay my rent or pay my bills. I had a bad credit rating because I was always late in paying my asthma medicine bills off. If I had to do it over again I would definitely be more practical coming right out of conservatory. I might have been better off staying in school and getting a Masters in something. I might have been better off learning another skill so I could make money during the lean times.
There's a great eternal riddle:
"What's a musician without a girlfriend? - Homeless!"
"How do you make a musician complain? - Give him a gig!"
I've almost resembled that remark a few times. Somehow I made it here, but I don't pretend to think that I've made it for good. If I want to leave this show (which I'll have to do eventually) I'll have to enter the freelance world again at the advanced age I have (late 40's). I'm not alone. There are a lot of quality musicians out there who have unique things to offer. I would say that I have carved out a career for myself by playing the bassoon in unique ways for these groups in particular: The Paul Dresher Ensemble, DAVKA, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Cirque Du Soleil. I also got paid to do a few records by a Japanese record label in the 90's: The Last Romantics, Astro Boy Blues, and Homecoming.
All the other people I've played with have been one-offs or a little tour here and there then that's it. The economic realities of being a musician should really be correctly addressed in music school. I'm not a big fan of conservatories for exactly the reason why I went to one. That reason was to just study music. Of course it's a great world to be in when you're in school, but it is kind of a bubble in the sea of reality out there. I see so many people teaching who have not had too much gig experience but got all their degrees one after another and just turned around and became a teacher after their PhD or Doctorate. I feel that just like football players, as a musician you should have a degree in business or something practical as making it in music is just a bit easier than making it in pro sports. I really admire all those amazing LA wind players and the rest of the studio guys. I'm saddened when I hear that orchestral session work is going to Eastern Europe due to the cheaper price. I'm saddened to hear of these great players not having work. There will always be people who thrive and survive as well as people who don't become successful.
If I've learned ANYTHING (which maybe I have-not sure) it's that you have to make yourself unique AND versatile. You have to have love for the music and be great - that's a given. And you have to seize opportunity when it comes.
DE: Did you contribute to your sound/setup on Cirque or were you just given music and told what sounds to use?
PH: I definitely did contribute to the ZED score on my own. I came up with the setup - there was not a need for much effects besides delay and the Super Shifter (which adds a pitch one octave higher). I came up with a few bass lines, a few melodic lines that made it into the show. But we were also given parts by Rene Dupere, the composer of the music for ZED. So we had parts and added some of our own things to those parts.
DE: How much of the music in ZED do you improvise, and how much is strict notes on the page played the same way every night like a broadway show? I do understand that there are probably many vamps to account for timing in the acts.
PH: Most of ZED is not improvised. We haven't seen charts since way back before it opened, before we were even in costumes. We've memorized it LOOOONG ago. However, we've added things here and there that weren't composed by the composer but our bandleader. And I've added a few things like we all have.
Also, for solos: at this point I usually just want a good result so I will start with a phrase I know will get me off to a good start. I guess I will play that beginning phrase for a few months until I want to change it. But the middle and ending is always different. It really never feels like a 'jazz gig' - it's a production. More like being in a rock band where you have to have high energy flowing and there's not much time for reflection. It just has to work. A lot like playing a rock gig on sax. Sometimes we are asked to improvise when something's going wrong with the rigging or some technical issue. That is why Cirque requires performers to know how to improvise.
There's one section where I have a short little exposed funky solo for 4 bars right after the violin, I figured out how to approach that. I have to be up pretty high and it's always been weird because of what I'm playing over in my headphones - I figured out how to approach it so something good is guaranteed pretty much all the time to flow. If I ever 'get the muse I will play something totally different just because I feel like it. I actually did that today and went totally bi-tonal on a tune for like a bar. But in this show, playing 380 times a year, I go with a formula that works for me. This isn't a jazz gig, the audience gets a show and we try to remain consistent as we can. So although I never play the same solo verbatim from show to show, I do start the same a lot of the time. I've listened to recordings from back from last spring and summer and it's like looking at evolution. From the dinosaurs to the mammoths to the cavemen to the modern day, there's an evolution I can hear. I'm much more concise now - now I know what the gig requires and how I can do it.
There are not really too many vamps - maybe a couple of sections for one of the highwire guys doing his Salto. The whole show is really well paced and there's not much vamping at all. The show you saw is much longer than the show today. ZED will be a one set show of 90 minutes (like all the rest of Cirque's resident shows) in April. So we've been shortening the show like mad.
By the way - here's a normal day at ZED:
We play 2 2-set shows a day. A normal day is leave the house by 10:40am and get to the bus stop for the 10:47 bus. From there, I take the JR Line one stop to where Tokyo Disney Resort is. I usually arrive at work at 11:15am, put my horn together and start soaking my Armenian Duduk reed (yep, I play that in the show), and then I put on my makeup. We have sound check at 11:45, then we finish our makeup and get ready for a show at 1pm. Intermission at 1:45-back on at 2:05 or so. Play the second set, off at 3:05pm. Eat lunch (catered). Second show starts at 5, the same stuff again with the intermission. I get off the second show at about 7:08. By the time I get my makeup and show costume off and my clothes on it's about 7:20. I race back thru the mall to the train station and I end up getting home at about 8pm. So not much time to do anything else! Luckily the show will be shortened to 90 minute one-set show in April. That will cut one hour off my day. T hat's why I'm not playing too much of anything else these days!
DE: Was beginning to practice jazz on the bassoon difficult, given the technical obstacle? Or was it an easy/natural transition from what you were already doing on sax? Did you start with Aebersold vol. 54 or could you jump right to the Charlie Parker Omnibook in bass clef?
PH: Yes, beginning jazz improvisation was hard at first. I first made up a bunch of obligato, bass line type things that bopped around from the low range to the high range. That wasn't so hard, but learning bop tunes, transcribing, learning Bird tunes in all keys - that took awhile. Also, playing with people outside of the practice room took awhile as the dynamics of bassoon (FRAP or not) are totally different than sax. It was not an easy transition and it took awhile. It really isn't meant to happen on bassoon in some ways, especially bebop. It can be done, but if you're interested in bop and want to play those lines - sax is MUCH easier. There's a reason why bassoon is not a common jazz instrument - it's hard as hell . The sax has one thumb key (octave); the bassoon has 13. And you're playing basically altered recorder fingerings. On sax you can play with just the left hand a lot of the time. Almost never does that happen on bassoon. In some ways I did what I did because I knew that hardly anyone would even try.
DE: What setup would you recommend for someone interested in experimenting in amping + electric bassoon, who may not be able to invest in a MacBook Pro and Logic? A sort of beginner electric bassoon setup if you will.
PH: A beginner electric bassoon setup: I'd go with the Little Jake pickup that Trent Jacobs makes or go with the Josephson microphone that I think is in production. Use a full-range amp like a keyboard amp with a horn. That's the best way I think now to do this. Forrestsmusic.com has this stuff.
DE: Have you done any work as a featured soloist with big bands?
PH: Yes, I've done shows with big bands and I have charts somewhere of some of my tunes arranged for big bands. I did this at U of Oklahoma and U of Memphis and a few other places. I've also taken arrangements meant for tenor players or trombone players and done them.
DE: Any practice tips for music students out there?
PH: Practice tips: Long tones, long tones, work with a tuner, practice with a metronome as much stuff as you can whether or not it applies to your instrument. Do the standard stuff (Milde, Kovar, whatever) but don't limit yourself. I always enjoyed practicing as it's kind of like meditating or devoting yourself to the art of music.
I'd like to thank Paul Hanson for giving me the opportunity to interview him. As always please support musicians by purchasing their music and books (Paul has a jazz bassoon technique book available at forrestsmusic.com). Watch his youtube videos, 'fan' him on facebook, pass this interview along to everybody you know. And if you're in the neighborhood of Tokyo Disnyland, go see ZED!
Got a Match?
Electric Bassoon Workout
performing "Scratch and Sniff" with Bela Fleck