It has been called “the clown of the orchestra” and “the burping bedpost”, among other things.
But it’s no laughing matter for Nadina Mackie Jackson.
In fact, the Toronto-based musician has made a successful career playing the deep-voiced bassoon, a double-reed woodwind with a rich history as a solo instrument.
Mackie Jackson’s love affair with the bassoon began at age 13, when she heard a solo performance by Canadian legend George Zukerman – a man her musical partner, trumpeter Guy Few, calls the “high priest” of the bassoon.
“I can still remember the sensation I had. When I heard that instrument, I really craved it, I really wanted it,” she says.
“And I had no idea, beyond having heard the orchestra examples of what it could be. I had no idea what existed for it.”
Mackie Jackson has since discovered “tons and tons of repertoire” for the bassoon, including over 6,000 concertos – 39 of them written by Antonio Vivaldi alone.
“He’s writing these in the late 18th century, and he had such an understanding of the technical possibilities of the instrument. They’re so colourful, they’re so varied, and so challenging.”
Long after the Baroque era of Vivaldi and Telemann, composers are still writing for the bassoon.
Mackie Jackson and Few – who have performed together for nearly seven years as the duo Guy and Nadina – are working on an album of Canadian concertos, most of them commissioned especially for them.
And when the prolific Montana composer, Eric Funk, heard them perform his concerto for bassoon and brass quintet, he immediately wrote a complex symphony, called For the End of Humanity, specifically with them in mind.
When Guy and Nadina appear at the Yukon Arts Centre next month, they will present their “tour story-telling” program.
“It’s a real selection, from early music of Boismortier and Bach, right through to more contemporary things,” Few explains.
“We have some beautiful pieces and modern arrangements of traditional pieces. We have some French music, we have some tango. It’s a real mix.”
Interspersed with the music will be stories from the duo’s experiences as touring musicians.
“Each of the pieces kind of goes with the story that precedes it or, in some cases, follows it,” he says.
One story they may not include is how Mackie Jackson went from being a teenager fascinated by an unfamiliar instrument to becoming what Few describes as “the best bassoonist in the world”.
At the time, Mackie Jackson was living off-the-grid near Prince George, B.C., where her parents ran a log-building school.
Despite having “very enthusiastic” band teachers, the closest place she could find a bassoon teacher was Vancouver.
Once a month she would fly south for a lesson, then sleep in the airport waiting for the next day’s return flight, using her bassoon case as a pillow.
One night, she was awakened by an RCMP officer.
“She thought I was a runaway kid. And I said, ‘No, I’m here for bassoon lessons,’ and for some reason, she believed me.”
At 16, Mackie Jackson entered the music program at University of British Columbia.
“The new bassoon player in the symphony there was a fantastic player, and that’s when I heard what it could really do. And then your imagination takes off,” she says.
The idea of forming a bassoon-trumpet duo probably had its origins during her days as a member of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
“I’ve always loved the trumpet. Bassoons always sit in front of the trumpets in orchestras, so I’ve dated a lot of trumpeters,” she laughs.
When she first heard Few – who plays several brass instruments as well as piano – hearing his “voice” on the trumpet evoked a physical sensation that made her want to team up with that instrument.
“It’s like a touch, a gentle touch, that you can recognize. And you just find music that will work for it.”
Besides touring, Guy and Nadina have produced several CDs and appeared frequently on CBC. Their numerous long-term projects include a film project with the cryptic title of Alien Baby and the Spinning Marble, and a possible collaboration with singer-songwriter, Valdy.
Guy and Nadina perform Saturday, January 21 as part of the Whitehorse Concert series.
As well as their acclaimed musicianship and the colourful fashion sense that is the duo’s signature, they intend to offer an engaging evening.
“Guy and I both have short attention spans, so it has to be interesting for us, and then we assume it will be interesting for the audience,” Mackie Jackson says.