Scott Robinson: Jazz Ambassador
“ I certainly was not striving for irony; I'm just striving for music. ”
Looking at Scott Robinson, with his large glasses, high forehead and generally owlish countenance, you might take him for some sort of scientist. Interestingly enough, that's not far from the truth.
In fact, one of the New Jersey resident's latest endeavors involves converting his two-car garage to what he hopes will be a "sonic laboratory" for rehearsals and various recording projects. "I've always, deep down thought of myself as a kind of mad scientist type, so I've decided that I should let myself go more in that direction and let the mad scientist come out and do some experiments and some pouring back and forth of little beakers of musical sounds," he said.
For simplicity's sake, you can call Robinson a "saxophonist" or "multi-instrumentalist," but that only scratches the surface. A collector of antique instruments, Robinson proudly also plays a variety of reeds and brass family horns that would otherwise be relegated to museums. Echo cornet, double bell euphonium, c-melody sax, ophicleide and the imposing contrabass sax are just are sampling of his collection.
"I plan to record a number of very large scale works all by myself, using all of these different sounds that I have at my disposal, one by one, playing the parts and layering them, composing directly to the recording medium without any music paper. I want to be able to create large orchestras consisting of instrumentations of sound that would never actually be obtainable anywhere on the earth," he explained.
"This is, I think, really the most important project of all that I have facing me, is to get this studio constructed and to begin creating these giant orchestras of sound that I've been hearing in my head for years and years."
On the more conventional level, Robinson is better known as a player in the swing tradition whose arcane instruments have helped add a sense of authenticity and humor to various performances of early jazz works. You are as likely to see him play a slide saxophone, F mezzo-soprano sax and ophicleide (an early relative of the tuba) as you are the tenor. His latest Arbors album, Jazz Ambassador: Scott Robinson Plays the Compositions of Louis Armstrong, features him on a number of his collectables, doing new treatments of Satchmo's tunes.
Any fan who picks up an album featuring tunes written by Louis Armstrong would expect to hear music in the traditional style. But just as he does with antique instruments, Robinson takes something old and makes it new, concentrating on the tunes and not the style in which they originally were performed. Does he see the irony in that?
"I certainly was not striving for irony; I'm just striving for music," he said. "It's true that I make use of elements of the past, present and what I imagine to be the future in a way that's freely intermixed . It's my approach to music, and a lot of things."
One of the more intriguing cuts on the Armstrong album is a live rendition of "Swing That Music" that features the drum section of Indigenafrica, a 39-member children's orchestra from Ghana. Robinson simply counts off the beat, the percussionists pick it up and then his group joins in.
"I found that several of these melodies lent themselves to all sorts of rhythmic treatments," he said of the Armstrong material.
"Among the enduring melodies in jazz are often those which lend themselves to a variety of treatments, (Duke) Ellington being a good example. In view of the fact that Louis Armstrong hasn't been given much attention as a composer, I felt that it would be interesting to take his compositions and give them my own personal interpretations. I don't think of it as updating or modernizing them, because they don't require that," he said of the album.
The Armstrong material is the first part of Robinson's "Great American Composers Series," which eventually will include a tribute to one of his favorite arranger-composers, Sun Ra, he said. He already has an album of Thad Jones compositions recorded for release next year and also wants to tackle Eddie Harris. "I've long felt that in the jazz world with the exceptions of maybe Ellington and (Thelonious) Monk, perhaps (Charles) Mingus we seem reserve most or praise for the songwriters (George) Gershwin and (Irving) Berlin and (Cole) Porter while overlooking the work of the actual jazz composers who wrote music that also has great, enduring melodies but which was jazz music from the beginning, unlike the songwriters."
For writing and arranging in jazz, "Sun Ra is one of my big favorites. He's a very important person to me. I've been listening to his music almost about as long as I've been listening to Armstrong," he said.
"Sun Ra never really had a big band, as that term is commonly known. I don't know why he always turns up in big band polls and things like that," he said. "He had a lot of kind of mid-sized groups and some smaller groups and then some very large ensembles, not of which, that I'm aware of, really conform to what's a big band, with that particular aggregation of trombones, saxophones and trumpets. To me he's just a jazz musician and a composer, and he's no more avant-garde than he is traditional.
"There's only about ten years difference in age between Armstrong and Sun Ra. They're not that far apart chronologically, although Ra got a later start in the scene. He was playing music in the 30s and did his first recordings in the 40s and has done just about every imaginable kind of music, from stride piano and small group swing on out, into outer space," he said.
"He's a great writer," Robinson continued. "I've worked on arrangements of a lot of his music and I've transcribed many of his compositions."
The Sun Ra project is meant to be the second volume of the series, and the Thad Jones volume three, Robinson said. While the Jones album is slated to come out on Arbors, a predominantly trad-mainstream swing label, it remains to be seen if it will put out the Sun Ra disc, Robinson said. "That's a very interesting question," he said. "We'll see. I've gotten Arbors to stretch pretty far from their original musical stance. The last piece on the Louis Armstrong thing ("Tears," by Lil and Louis Armstrong) gets into some sort of what you might call post-Albert Ayler territory, and they went with that. I'm hoping that they will add this to the series. If they don't, I'll have to put it out myself or find someone else who will, because it's a very important part of the series."
"It's OK with me if volume three comes out first. I don't care about that. But volume two's gotta make it out next," he said.
The 45-year-old Robinson's cross-pollination of eras and styles is something that doesn't get him as many quizzical looks as it might have in his youth. "When I was younger and I was interested in these things, I think it was more unusual not to adhere to this or that particular musical cant, but nowadays, with people like Dave Douglas and Don Byron and Greg Cohen and Steve Bernstein and many others, I think the stylistic doors have been swung pretty wide open at this point and there are many who are as well-schooled in traditional jazz as later forms" he said. For his part, Robinson's breadth of working experience ranges from Vince Giordano's New Orleans Nighthawks to Anthony Braxton.
"I think a lot of the people I work with have really no idea of some of the other things I'm involved in, and maybe that's for the best" Robinson said with a laugh.
Robinson's appreciation of things old goes back to his youth. His first horn was his grandfather's 1927 Conn alto sax. "By the time I got into high school, I was interested in things like the tenor, c-melody, old Conns to match the alto that I already had. I kind of started out that way. I've never really played new instruments. I learned on antiques and I play antiques still today," he said.
"I grew up in a very old house 1783 farm house surrounded with a lot of old things and I've just always been drawn to the character and mystery of older things," he added.
"The value of older instruments has really caught on," Robinson said. "Back when I was playing exclusively old Conns, I always heard players say: 'Oh, those horns have a great sound, but nobody plays them anymore because they're too hard to get around on.' Everybody wanted Selmers. But now, the old Conn has become almost chic again, and they've become sought-after and prices have gone up.
Collectors, as well, have driven up prices for the obsolete and unusual instruments. It is "kind of unfortunate because most of the collectors are not real players or composers," he explained. "They like to have these things around, but it makes it more difficult for those few who really want to write for and perform on those unusual instruments."
Robinson's most eye-catching instrument is the gargantuan contrabass sax, rescued from a retirement of holding umbrellas, walking sticks and artificial flowers in a Rome antique shop. It took more than two years of negotiations to persuade the owner to part with it.
Robinson, a skilled instrument mechanic , fashioned a new neck and replaced a missing key for it and almost immediately put his new find to the test on his Arbors album, Thinking Big. It has since been used on five albums, a movie soundtrack and at countless festivals. "That's one of the joys of something like that, bringing it back to life and actually writing for it and using it," he said.
While there may be about 16 such instruments left in the world, Robinson said it was not someone's idea of a joke.
"It's part of the original design plan for the saxophone. It's not a novelty. It's not any kind of crazy idea that someone had to make a big saxophone. The original saxophone patent is for something like 14 sizes of these things," he said.
Another aspect of Robinson's career is his ability to repair instruments, necessity being the mother of invention.
"I'm a cheapskate and I don't want to pay all these repair bills," he chuckled. "I have hundreds of instruments and most of them are obtained in 'as-is' condition. That's how I'm able to maintain these things, by doing the work myself, which I started doing in high school: somebody showed my the basics, how to take the keys off, put them back on, this sort of thing."
And it is not unusual to see Robinson jump into the breach at a concert of festival when the call for a sax doctor goes out.
"I've been pressed into service a number of times, sometimes on the bands bus, sometimes on stage," he said. "Most things that go wrong are something very simple: one just needs to know how to identify the mistake and correct it. A little oil here, or removing some dirt there. That kind of thing clears up a lot of problems that have to do with springs and actions.
"I actually had to straighten the body of a saxophone once on a band bus with no tools at all. I managed to do it, although I think I scared everybody," he added.
Everybody has a "to do" list: mow lawn, wash car, get groceries, etc. Robinson's, however, includes an "orchestra of the impossible" and an airborne concert.
"I've always got a huge backlog of ideas and projects I wish I could do. The first that comes to mind that would require money and resources is my idea for a hot air balloon orchestra, which would be a three-dimensional orchestra. Well, four dimensional, really. Musicians placed in different hot air balloons which would be able to ascend to different altitude for specific parts of the piece. This is an idea which I've wished for years and years that I could somehow do. And I haven't found yet the way I could pull this off," he said.
"I've always had a great interest in lighter than air flight. In fact, a whole room of my house, which I call the airship room, is devoted entirely to memorabilia related to lighter-than-air flight," he said. "I've actually got pieces of some of the old airships that crashed in the '20s and '30s."
Instruments for his other pipe dream, the "orchestra of the impossible" would be "some of the more startling ones from my collection, plus others that need to be located or constructed," he explained. "Part of the orchestra is going to be a contrabass drum set, and I have most of the pieces of that ready to go, but I'm waiting for someone to construct the world's largest ride cymbal." With the cymbal expected to weigh in at 60 inches across and a 40-inch bass drum, "It's not going to sound anything like an ordinary drum set," he said.
Other aspirations include a multimedia work involving the surrealistic paintings of Richard Powers, whose works were used on science fiction book covers, Robinson said. "One of my biggest heroes and one of the largest influences on me musically and otherwise. He wasn't a musician, but his work has influence my music very much," he said.
Robinson said when people come to hear his first solo concert in 23 years November 4 at the Cornelia Street Cafe, they "should expect to see me in my mad scientist phase. I'm going to bring a lot of sound sources, some things that are seldom seen and the listener should expect a bit of science."
The duo portion of his show will include Julian Thayer, someone Robinson described as "a very important person in my musical life. He's a scientist and a bassist. I've known him for many years, and there are certain musical things that I only do with this person.
"When I was playing with Anthony Braxton's orchestra, he came one time and brought his mobile laboratory and put electrodes all over my body and took measurements of physiological changes that were occurring in my body as I performed Braxton's music. We met Braxton for lunch the next day and looked at the results and talked about it," he said.
"Anthony was very excited and I just remember very clearly that at one point he suddenly exclaimed: 'This is exactly what has to happen! The scientists and the musicians have to work together!' Big exclamation points."
Despite all this talk of science and experimentation, the audience can leave their lab coats at home, Robinson said.
"On this occasion, I don't think any goggles or protective wear will be required," he said. "Just don't sit too close on the contrabass sax."
– Scott Robinson - Multiple Instruments (Multijazz, 1984)
– Frank Wess - Trying to Make My Blues Turn Green (Concord, 1994)
– Scott Robinson - Thinking Big (Arbors, 1997)
– Bob Brookmeyer's New Art Orchestra - New Works Celebration (Challenge,1997)
– Klaus Suonsaari - Portrait in Sound (Focus-KSJazz, 1998-'02)
– Scott Robinson - Jazz Ambassador (Arbors, 2004)
B&W by Jimmy Katz