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Taking Bassoon Seriously : Ray Pizzi finds beauty and musical life in the all too often ignored instrument. His trio will play at the Coffee Junction in Tarzana.

August 20, 1993|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Steve Appleford is a regular contributor to The Times.

Ray Pizzi's bassoon has won all kinds of respect from the music industry. His playing even led Henry Mancini to compose "Piece for Jazz Bassoon and Orchestra" in 1983, when it premiered with the New American Orchestra at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and later at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

So why is it that the bassoon remains "the clown of the orchestra"?

That reputation seems well-suited to Pizzi's own wiseacre persona, but he's serious about his bassoon, that five-foot-long wind instrument with the 3 1/2-octave range. When he arrives tonight at the Coffee Junction in Tarzana, it will be to play a serious mixture of jazz, classical, blues, gospel and bluegrass. Pizzi also will play an early evening set at the Coffee Junction on Sunday.

Writing and arranging this music has become a hobby for Pizzi. ("It beats the hell out of bowling.") That's mainly because so few composers seem prepared to write music with the bassoon as the lead solo instrument. They tend to leave the bassoon to its more traditional uses in opera and elsewhere, blending beautifully with strings and horns.

"The bassoon is one of the more-ignored instruments in music," Pizzi says sadly. "Many writers really don't know what the bassoon is capable of. It's not known as a solo instrument."

Not that Pizzi has limited his world to the sounds of the bassoon. He remains a busy session player of all the woodwind instruments--the clarinets, the saxophones, the flutes--for a wide range of albums, movies and commercials.

Over the last three decades, Pizzi, who lives in Van Nuys, has performed or recorded alongside Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Zappa, Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand, Madonna and many others.

Other gigs have required his bassoon to give musical life to Maytag's basset hound, Domino's Pizza "Noid," and the creature of the film "Predator II," offering the grisly extraterrestrial "a sensitive side, as he was ripping the heart out of people," Pizzi remembers.

This is how Pizzi earns his living and puts his two children through college. When he returns to the club circuit, it's for other reasons.

"It's important to be out in front of people, relating and getting that instant feedback," Pizzi says. "You don't get that from a studio microphone. Plus it's fun."

Tonight, he'll be performing with pianist Paul Astin. And on Sunday, Pizzi's bassoon will be part of his Wind Syndicate trio, which he shares with flutist Miriam Clarke and clarinetist Morton Lewis.

"It is so magical to watch," says Sharon Benson, co-owner of the Coffee Junction with Linda Sherlin. "He is so animated . . . He makes people laugh and makes people cry."

Pizzi has released five solo albums since the late 1970s, and earned three Grammy Award nominations.

He picked up his first woodwind instrument while a fifth-grader in Quincy, Mass. "I'm a product of the music educational system," Pizzi says. "When I was in school, some guy came in and demonstrated a bunch of instruments. I told my dad, 'I want to play the trumpet.' He looked at me and said, 'Well, all we've got is a clarinet.' "

Soon, he was learning other instruments besides the clarinet. After graduating from high school in 1960, he studied music at the Berklee School of Music and at the Boston Conservatory. He never learned the trumpet.

He says it saddens him to think that the musical education he enjoyed as a youngster is rarely available in public schools now.

"The biggest crime is that they don't have that here in this city," Pizzi says. "It's a shame . . . I got a lot of experience while I was in high school. I got prepared to step out into the field."

He still teaches some seminars and workshops between gigs. One upcoming performance with the Wind Syndicate, playing for the American Society of Composers and Arrangers in early September, demonstrates the deepening respect the industry is showing toward Pizzi and his much-ignored bassoon.

"They recognize the uniqueness of the music, and they probably want to steal all of my hot licks," he said.

Where and When What: Ray Pizzi at Coffee Junction, 19221 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana. Hours: Tonight, three sets between 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, two sets between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. Price: No cover, one-drink minimum. Call: (818) 342-3405.

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