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.