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Artist Profiles

Scott Robinson: Jazz Ambassador

By Published: November 2, 2004
"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.

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