Sara Schoenbeck’s new album of duos sees the New York-based bassoonist develop her musical voice in dialogue with friends and inspirations. ‘Sara Schoenbeck’ is released on 26 November. Feature by Izzy Blankfield.
Sara Schoenbeck knows that the bassoon is an unexpected jazz instrument, but this has made her even more determined to showcase its beauty and range. “There’s definitely a humanness to the sound of the bassoon,” she tells me. “The huge number of keys allows for so many colour opportunities”
In fact, the rarity of the bassoon in traditional jazz ensembles has motivated her to make her own way in the world of improvisation: “In creative improvisation settings there is room for unique instrumentation. There’s not a lot of precedent for bassoon in jazz, allowing one to create their own voice.”
Schoenbeck first found herself exploring alternative and microtonal music during her time at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the California Institute of the Arts. “I love orchestral music, but I’ve always felt a little bit boxed in by the classical standard technique and repertoire for bassoon,” she admits. “I never felt like it allowed me to say everything I wanted to say musically. The bassoon is more flexible and fluid than traditionally realized.”
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Schoenbeck has performed in major venues and festivals across Europe and North America, and is a member of a wide range of ensembles, including Anthony Braxton’s 12+1(tet), Petr Kotek’s SEM Ensemble and the Dakah Hip Hop Orchestra.
As a performer, composer and improviser, Schoenbeck draws inspiration from the multi-instrumentalists Eric Dolphy, Steve Lacy and, in particular, Jimmy Giuffre’s trio, which compelled her to explore a more experimental approach. She remembers: “I just couldn’t believe the beauty of it, and I loved the intimacy.”
Schoenbeck’s self-titled debut album sees the bassoonist in the spotlight. “I’ve always been more of a collaborator and a supporter of other people’s projects,” she says. “And I was told: ‘you’re having your own music front and centre and a platform for the different ways that you’ve been a musician, what would you like to do?’”
The album is a series of dialogues, each track a duo with a different person – including cellist Peggy Lee, guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Harris Eisenstadt. Across nine tracks, ranging from the melodic Sugar, with singer Robin Holcomb, to the more abstract Anaphoria, with pianist Wayne Horvitz, Schoenbeck showcases the incredible versatility of her instrument. “The concept was to present a survey of who I have been as a musician, which is a composer and improviser and collaborator. And I wanted this survey include people that I’d played with, people who’d made a huge difference in my musicality. The duo format made the most sense because the bassoon is inherently a quiet instrument. In larger ensembles, the delicate timbral approaches and shifts of the instrument – the intimacy of the bassoon – can get lost.”
With three of Schoenbeck’s own compositions, three compositions by others and three straight improvisations, the album combines complex and elaborate musical design with unmistakable spontaneity. One of the most fascinating tracks is Schoenbeck’s duo with saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, Chordata, an entirely improvised piece that builds from single notes to an exhilarating cascade of sound. “Roscoe has been a hero of mine since I was in school! We had half a day in the recording studio, and it felt like an improvisation intensive – we would record, then we would discuss what we’d recorded.”
“It was a real revelation: it reminded me that improvisation can start from a small grain of an idea, that you can slowly evolve without jumping away. That’s something I’ve always had to work on – how do you make sure that your endorphins don’t change your concept of the passage of time when performing?”
It was this desire to move with the flow of her music that shaped the recording process. “I allotted about three hours per duet person. I think this time parameter wouldn’t have worked if I didn’t already have a musical relationship with each musician,” Schoenbeck says. “I was concerned about recording in different studios and locations, but I feel like there’s continuity in the sound. I really like how I journeyed to people to make the record.”
The pandemic stretched the project out to two years – a longer duration that Schoenbeck found constructive. “The break in the middle was very helpful in terms of taking space and recalibrating my understanding of the project,” Schoenbeck admits. “For me, it was useful to have that kind of space away from the work, and the self-critical thoughts, and to think, I believe in this – which is what I want from any project. I believe that this is a marker in time of my musical voice.”
Sara Schoenbeck is out on 26 November