Thinking Big

Arbors 1997

The Music

  1. My Heart (Lil Hardin Armstrong) (7:50)
    SR: Tenor Saxophone
  2. Mood Indigo (Duke Ellington, Barney Bigard, Irving Mills) (5:17)
    SR: Theremin, Bass Clarinet
  3. Mandy, Make Up Your Mind (Grant Clarke, Roy Turk, George W. Meyer, Arthur Johnston) (4:37)
    SR: Soprano Saxophone, Contrabass Sarrusophone
  4. All Too Soon (Carl Sigman, Duke Ellington) (5:06)
    SR: C-Melody Saxophone
  5. Ko-Ko (Duke Ellington) (3:47)
    SR: Contrabass Saxophone
  6. Chances Are (Al Stillman, Robert Allen) (3:15)
    SR: Tenor Saxophone
  7. Sleepy Time Gal (Joseph Alden, Raymond Egan, Ange Lorenzo, Richard Whiting) (5:46)
    SR: Bass Saxophone
  8. Oh! Sister, Ain't That Hot! (Walter Donaldson, Harry White) (4:46)
    SR: Bass Saxophone, Clarinet
  9. It's Magic (Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne) (4:46)
    SR: Bass Saxophone
  10. Dreams Come True (Sun RA) (3:28)
    SR: C-Melody Saxophone
  11. Stompin' at the Savoy (Andy Razaf, Benny Goodman, Chick Webb, Edgar Sampson) (5:46)
    SR: Bass Saxophone
  12. On a Turquoise Cloud (Duke Ellington, Lawrence Brown) (3:59)
    SR: Theremin; Alot, Tenor, and Baritone Saxophones; Clarinet and Bass Clarinet
  13. Basso Profundo (Duke Ellington) (3:19)
    SR: Contrabass Saxophone
  14. Moonlight and Roses (Ben Black, Neil Moret) (1:37)
    SR: Alto Saxophone


The Artists


Liner Notes by Dan Morgenstern

This is an extraordinary record by an extraordinary musician. What makes Scott Robinson so special is not that he plays so many instruments so very well (though this, of course, is no mean feat in and of itself) but that he employs this versatility in such a creative way. As you listen to him here, you are struck by how well each selection fits the particular instrument(s) used, and how true to the particular character of each instrument Scott's playing is. This is the work of a dedicated artist who uses his skills to create new colors and textures and, always, to express his feelings.

This is Scott Robinson's fourth record as a leader. The earlier ones haven't been all that easy to find. The first, an LP issued in 1984, was actually my introduction to Scott's remarkable talent - I was visiting the young Danish-born pianist Niels Lan Doky, who'd been a Boston's Berklee College of Music with Scott, and pulled out this record he'd made with him. Called Multiple Instruments, it had Scott on the cover leaning on his vintage Plymouth, surrounded by horns of all sorts. I said, "What is this?," and Niels smiled and said, "You listen. This guy's amazing." I did and he was. The first time I heard Scott on a live gig was at a JazzTimes convention - he was playing valve trombone with a quartet, and swinging. That was the first of many encounters, in such varied contexts as the bands of Mel Lewis, Buck Clayton, Vince Giordano and Illinoise Jacquet, with many more to come.

Scott's second album, Winds fo Change, was first issude as an LP in 1988, then reappeared on CD in 1990, on the Japanese Ken Music label. Like its predecessor, it had Lan Doky on piano, and fellow ex-Berleeites Ira Coleman and Klaus Suonsaari on bass and drums (with Terri Lyne Carrington sharing the drum chair), and it displayed Scott's composing chops as well as his instrumentarium, including trumpet and valve trombone. (He's amoung the very few to have mastered both reed and brass intruments - Benny Carter, Ira Sullivan, Brad Gowans and Jimmy Dorsey come to mind.) The third, which I've not come across, featured the Czech keyboardist Emil Viklicky and was issued in 1993 on the German Bliss label. By then, his recording career had begun to take wing - he's appeared on more than 75 albums by now - and the dozen released during 1996 give some indication of his musical range: the bands of Toshiko Akiyoshi and Maria Schneider (of both of which he's a mainstay) and Tom Pierson, as well as the Buck Clayton Legacy Band; trumpeters Peter Ecklund and Randy Sandke; singers Caecilie Norby, Daryl Sherman and Carol Sloane; bassist Greg Cohen, and the Norwegian pianist Per Husby. The Sloane CD, a Sinatra Tribute, shows yet another facet of Scott - he arranged several pieces, as he did for a fine Frank Wess session, Trying to Make My Blues Turn Green.

For the session at hand, Scott arranged all the tunes except Sleepy Time Gal, for which Dan Barrett fleshed out a two-part harmony version he and Scott do at jazz parties. The fleshing out is due to the presence of a third horn, and that presence, of trumpeter-cornetist David Robinson, is of special significance to Scott. David is Scott's older brouther.

"This record gives me a chance to finally do something with David, who has taught me a lot about music through the years," he said. It is also our first chance to hear David's warm and attractive playing in a proper setting, his few prior appearances on disc not having done him justice. Four years older than Scott (who was born in New Jersey in 1959 but reared in Virginia), David plays gigs around the nations's capital, mostly with traditional groups. It was when he practiced with such a group in the Robinson's yard that Scott listened and watched and "got the fever," as he describes it. David became his mentor in things musical and clearly did a fine job. These days he's very much involved in the Federal Focus Jazz Band, a youth group for which David and his colleagues provide instruments and funds for rehearsing. The band has performed at the White House and in Europe, and its repertory includes pieces by such stalwarts as Jelly Roll Morton. David is also a past-president of the American Federation of Jazz Societies.

Aside from David and Dan Barrett (certainly no stranger to the Arbors family), and Scott's longtime friend Klaus Suonsaari, the cast includes two fine pianists: Richard Wyands, who during a long and distinguished career has been associated with such major figures as Benny Carter and Charles Mingus, and Mark Shane, whose inspirations include Tommy Flanagan and Teddy Wilson. Guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, needs no introduction to any self-respecting jazz fan; and bassist Pat O'Leary, has worked and recorded with pianist Hal Galper's trio and Lionel Hampton's big band.

On My Heart, composed by Lil Hardin Armstrong for an early Hot Five record date, Scott plays one of his primary horns, the tenor sax. He introduces the pretty theme ("I learned the tune from David years ago," he points out) out-of-tempo, backed only by piano, then drums and bass kick in and Scott swings through three choruses of flowing ideas, displaying his range from top to bottom. Wyands and O'Leary come in for spots and then Scott re-enters for some trading with Klaus, a fine theme paraphrase, and a nice ending.

The famous Mood Indigo has been recorded so many times (not least by Mr. Ellington himself) that it's a challenge to find something new to say on it. Scott does so by means of the theremin, a fairly recent addition to his instrumentarium. Named for its inventor, it was the first electronic instrument - the sound is produced when the player passes his hands over a little black box with an antenna-like protrusion. Scott now owns two of these magic contraptions: an early tube model made by synthesizer pioneer Robert Moog, and the one heard here, which was once used for sound effects on the Ernie Kovacs show. "I've now used the theremin on three records, a film score, and a jingle," Scott said. It has an eerie sound (it was used prominently in the Hitchcock thriller Spellbound), complemented nicely here by Scott's bass clarinet, on which he gets a beautiful tone. Brother Dave, with Harmon mute, brings Artie Whetsol to mind with his centered tone, bowed bass adds another texture, and when the theremin resumes, Scott makes it slide and slither, climaxing with tremolos. Something else!

Mandy, Make Up Your Mind, one of those good old good ones, was waxed twice in 1924 by bands including Louis Armstrong - Fletcher Henderson's and the Clarence Williams Blue Five. On the latter, it wasn't Louis but Sidney Bechet who stole the show with a solo on the sarrusophone, and that's what Scott offers here - on a contrabass sarrusophone, no less. This family of instruments (brass body, reed mouthpiece) was introduced by its inventor, French bandmaster named Pierre Auguste Sarrus (1813-1876), some ten years after the appearance of the saxophone, a far more successful hybrid. There aren't many around today, but depend on Scott to find one! He plays soprano in the ensemble, there's a nice Barrett chorus, Shane sounds like early Teddy W., and Dave's open horn does nice things with the changes. Then comes the sarrusophone. The sound is very reedy and conjures up a giant ostrich performing a mating dance; its dry tones are also heard in the closing ensemble, where Scott plays Bechet's original 2 bar break.

All Too Soon, our second Ellington item, offers some soulful playing by Scott on the once popular and now extinct C-Melody saxophone. It has its own sound, but Scott's phrasing and feeling here evoke Jonny Hodges. Bucky and Richard take nice turns, and then Scott takes it out in style.

For Ellington's Ko-Ko, Scott brings on the cover attraction: the contrabass saxophone. There aren't many of these dinosaurs extant today - I'd only seen a specimen once before, on an Anthony Braxton record date. Braxton used a step-ladder to play it. Scott has found a way to balance his while he plays. It took him more than two years to get it, after he'd first spotted it in the window of an antique shop in Rome. "It was dusty and in disrepair," he recalled, "and the bell was stuffed with canes, umbrellas and artificial flowers. It took the untiring effors of my friends in Rome to convice the shop owner to part with it - lots of red wine played a role in this. It finally arrived here in August of 1996, and I spent weeks overhauling it in my back yard."

The instrument yields an incredible sound here, like Harry Carney in the fourth dimension. Scott's excellent arrangement lets us hear solos by piano, trombone and trumpet (with plunger), David really getting into the spirit of this 12-bar blues in minor. Scott takes Jimmy Blanton's breaks. This is a dramatic rendition of a big-band classic - quite a coup!

Chances Are is indelibly associated with Johnny Mathis, and it was on a job with the singer that Scott learned this attractive tune. This is an intimate performance by Scott on tenor, backed only by Bucky's 7-string guitar. The final half chorus - after Bucky's pretty bridge - is strictly Scott; the way he goes up high is like a signature.

We've mentioned Sleepy Time Gal. Scott's on bass sax here, his warm sound reminding of the master, Adrian Rollini. For that matter, Dan Barrett's setting is also redolent of 1920s New York style, a la Ida, and he takes a fine solo. The key change is effective, and the celeste adds a nice coloristic touch. Don't overlook David's contribution. The concluding pyramid chord is idiomatic, and Scott manages to get a high A-flat out of the big horn.

From the book of Jimmie Noone's Apex Club band comes Walter Donaldson's Oh! Sister, Ain't That Hot! - "another tune I learned from David," Scott noted. He plays clarinet and bass sax, getting his own sound on the clarinet as well. The ensemble is very mobile here. Dan offers a muted gem, and David dons the plunger, conjuring up Muggsy Spanier. Then Mark joins the party with some good stride struff, and Scott trots out his lower register on the clarinet, backed by Bucky's strum.. The brass join in, and Scott switches to bass sax. They eschew the tag, for which we thank them!

It's Magic is a ballad feature for Scott's bass sax. "This is probably my favorite thing on the record ... I first fell in love with this tune when I came upon a record by Eric Dolphy when I was very young. He actually plays the melody very straight, and very beautifully, on bass clarinet - the tune has great lyrics also." Scott sings on this. Lovely.

Since I first heard Scott play Dreams Come True at this session, Sun Ra's catchy little tune has been swimming around in my head. It dates from 1956, early in Sunny's extensive discography, had a vocal, and a fine John Gilmore tenor solo. Scott plays C-Melody here, duetting with Mark Shane, who digs deeply into his Teddy Wilson bag. "I'm crazy about Sun Ra," Scott said. "I grew up listening to lots of him and Louis Armstrong." We're glad he did. Wait and see - it'll linger in your mind as well....

Stompin' at the Savoy, Edgar Sampson's classic swing era anthem, features Scott on the bass sax, which, though dwarfed on this trip by the contrabass monster, is still a pretty hefty piece of plumbing. "In 1987," Scott recalled, "when I was playing in Illinois Jacquet's band, we used to play this tune every night and it always began with a few piano choruses in front. Richard always sounded fantastc, and I've waited a long time to have him do the same on my record." Mr. Wyands comes through with flying fingers, Scott really gets around on the big horn, his phrasing very hip here, Bucky picks up on Scott's final phrase, and then Dan does the same when his turn comes. Nice bass solo and drum fills, and dig that final bass sax note!

I can't recall anyone else having tackled Ellington's On A Turquoise Cloud. Scott owns Duke's original recording, and also has "a great film of the band doing it, which my brother gave me. Again, he introduced me to this piece." Scott overdubbed himself here, on alto, tenor and baritone saxes, clarinet and bass clarinet, and, last but not least, theremin. The latter instrument sounds startlingly human, conjuring up the voice of Kay Davis. Dan Barrett does a great job on Lawrence Brown's muted solo. A unique performance! Duke and Billy Strayhorn would have loved it.

More from the inexhaustible Ellington lode with Basso Profundo, a piece never recorded commercially but surviving in a live performance from the 1947 Carnegie Hall concert, where it was a showcase for the basses of Oscar Pettiford and Junior Raglin. Scott brings back the monster for this, and it's perfectly suited to the strongly rhythmic blues pattern of this piece. Bucky strums it on (great tempo), aided by Klaus. Then Scott brings on the theme and dialogs with Pat's solid bass. Bucky swings mightily on his chorded solo, and then the monster returns. Great ending! (Just to fill this instrument with enough air to produce a sound is a challenge, and the way Scott gets around on it is nothing short of miraculous - something like climbing Mount Everest!)

This fascinating program comes to a gentle, touching conclusion with Moonlight and Roses, a vintage 1925 tune based on an 1892 piece composed for organ. Scott chose it as "my farewell to my much-loved grandfather, who got me started in music by giving me the Conn alto I play here, which he purchased new in 1927." It's just a single chorus but says it all.

I could tell you more about the amazing Scott Robinson - that he's won four fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, among other honors; that he was (at 22) the youngest faculty member at Berklee; that he has been an invited speaker at the Congrssional Black Caucus Jazz Forum and has performed for the President of the United States; that he's written about the bass sax for Saxophone Journal and conducted jazz workshops in the Czech Republic under the auspices of the U.S. Embassy; that he and his contrabass sax were the subject of a recent CNN news documentary, and that he keeps so busy that he's sometimes performed in more than a dozen countries in a single year - but the main thing for you to do is to listen. Scott Robinson is indeed a musician who thinks big.

- Dan Morgenstern, June 1997
(Dan is one of the master jazz writers and is currently the Director of the Institute fo Jazz Studies at Rutgers University.)


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