Thanks to the tireless Will Friedwald, we have this wonderful portrait and juxtaposition of two unlikely spheres —
Although Beiderbecke’s music has a certain futuristic quality to it, Mr. Robinson is even more aptly compared to an otherworldly visitor. There’s no one else doing anything close to what Mr. Robinson is doing: playing every style that exists in the jazz world (and classical, pop and world music besides), on almost every horn known to man (reeds, brass) and even some rhythm instruments. He is the only musician I have encountered who is equally likely to play clarinet in a re-creation of the music of Sidney Bechet on a Monday, and then turn up on Tuesday playing tenor saxophone with a swing-era big band. On the next night, you might spot him playing baritone in the sax section of a contemporary orchestral jazz composer; then on Thursday, he’ll bring out his really far-out horns for an outerspace jam with musicians from the Sun Ra Arkestra.
During a concert earlier this year at the Riverdale YM-YWHA in Bronx, N.Y., Mr. Robinson played cornet alongside two trumpets (Mr. Sandke and Jon-Erik Kellso) in a harmonized transcription of Beiderbecke’s classic solo to “At the Jazz Band Ball.” In “Waiting at the End of the Road,” Mr. Robinson and co-leader Dan Levinson crossed swords on two C-melody saxophones. And throughout the evening, Mr. Robinson also held down the bottom of the ensemble on another horn rarely heard since the 1920s—the bass saxophone, which gave the group a vigorous two-four rhythmic push that bands without a horn bass simply don’t have.
This week, Mr. Robinson plays with the legendary Bob Brookmeyer as part of “East Coast Sounds,” as presented by the L.A. Jazz Institute.
At his home in Teaneck, N.J., Mr. Robinson recently told me, “I’ve had so many comfortable years being everybody’s sideman, in every style, and I’m still going to keep doing that.” But after playing on more than 200 albums mostly for other people, he now wants to devote more time to pursuing his own musical visions. “I think of music as a big world that you can go into and never come back out of. It’s endless, and it’s filled with endless rooms and funny doors and branches that go off like caves.” Mr. Robinson has released four highly eclectic albums for Arbors Jazz and was determined to start his own label, “ScienSonic Laboratories,” by the time he turned 50; the label launch occurred earlier this year, a few weeks before his 51st birthday.
Born in New Jersey and raised in a farmhouse in Virginia, Mr. Robinson was encouraged to play jazz by a father who collected old records, a mother who taught piano, and an older brother, Dave, who plays traditional jazz cornet. He read a children’s book about a geeky kid who “found himself” by playing the saxophone, which inspired him to start studying that instrument, especially when he discovered that his high school had a bass sax that no one had touched for 50 years. Later, he bought a beat-up trumpet for $3 and taught himself to play that as well. “My home base,” he insists, however, “is the tenor sax, which is a whole musical universe unto itself.”
The same can be said of Mr. Robinson’s “laboratory,” a converted garage behind his house, where he stores his working instruments; thousands of additional parts and incomplete horns are stashed in his basement. Lanky, bearded and bespectacled, Mr. Robinson plays up the idea of looking and acting like a mad scientist of jazz; he has a custom lab coat that he wears to his own gigs, and hands out specially made test tubes as souvenirs. Although comfortable in the jazz past, his own ScienSonic projects are distinctly futuristic and avant-garde, starting with the album covers, which use paintings from ’50s science-fiction paperbacks by the late Richard Powers.
Scott Robinson’s collection of musical oddities includes variations on the saxophone, a couple of theramins, and a marimba set once used by Sun Ra’s Arkestra. When he plays music, his genre of jazz is equally eclectic.
The centerpiece of his collection is the contrabass saxophone, one of only 16 or so believed to exist, a seven-foot monster of a horn. Mr. Robinson discovered it in a secondhand-furniture store in Rome about 15 years ago, and it took more than two years to convince the owner to part with it. It was worth the effort: The contra produces a beautiful roar that might be likened to the love dance of a pair of happy hippopotami but is like nothing else in the human world. Then there’s the normaphone, an utterly Martian device invented in Germany that seems to be a saxophone, a trumpet, a trombone and bicycle pump all at once. Wildest of all is the slide saxophone, in which the pitches are controlled by a slide instead of keys and pads. Mr. Robinson once brought the slide sax over to the home of Ornette Coleman—godfather of all musical experimentalists—who somehow managed to play it in tune. The sound it produces is rather like the hybrid of a sax and a theremin.
Along with the giant saxophone, Mr. Robinson has stuffed his garage with what looks like King Kong’s rhythm section: a bass marimba (the very same one used by Sun Ra on his famous “Heliocentric Worlds” album) that you have to climb a ladder to play; a 180-pound Chinese ceremonial drum; a 7-foot banjo; and what looks like a 9-foot conga from the Philippines. At the opposite end of the spectrum, he also plays teeny-tiny devices like the sopranino sax and the indescribable octavin; there’s also the sarrusophone (played on one famous recording by Bechet), which looks like a brass-band marching instrument but uses a bassoon-like reed.
Only a handful of these implements are brought to bear on the first ScienSonic release, “Live at Space Farm,” a facility that is itself a unique hybrid of zoo and museum in Sussex, N.J. (whose exhibitions include a giant stuffed bear, once the largest in captivity, big enough to play the contrabass). The music is a completely free-form piece improvised by Mr. Robinson and a quartet co-starring saxophonist Marshall Allen, current leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra. Recorded in a bell tower in the middle of a cow pasture, the last note of the work was spontaneously provided by an obliging bull.
Meanwhile, a firm in Brazil is building Mr. Robinson the world’s first subcontrabass saxophone, which promises to be the biggest and lowest sax in history. The saxophonist also looks with a mischievous glint in his eye at his slide soprano: “If only I could get one of these on a bass sax,” he says.