javascript" src="static/js/analytics.js"> Loren Schoenberg
Home BiographyPhotos Recordings Writings Reviews The Jazz Museum in Harlem Email

Loren Schoenberg -- Writings

Melody from the Sky
Scott Robinson Plays C-Melody Saxophone

Arbors 2000

Liner Notes by Loren Schoenberg

The C melody saxophone is an odd instrument. Popular for a hot moment during the 1920s, it soon went the way of Calvin Coolidge, redolent (in an oddly inverse fashion) of a vibrant era, but one whose time was long past. Until recently, that is. Scott Robinson has managed to bring this moo-cow of a saxophone blazingly back to life in a typically original fashion.

This album straddles stylistic hurdles that are all but insurmountable to the great majority of jazz musicians. How Robinson has managed this feat can only be guessed at, for he is not one to propound pompously on his personal methodology. No, Scott Robinson really does speak through his music, as this recording enchantingly reveals.

Though he first achieved international recognition by virtue of his mastery of a panoply of instruments, it soon became clear to those not put off ipso facto by such displays that the sheer number of horns Scott played was actually far from the most important thing about him. Behind it all was a musician with a natural quality who clearly abhorred the various "schools" that jazz had quarantined itself into. Easily conversant in any number of jazz dialects, Robinson began to find employment in such a diverse mix of ensembles that even a cursory look at his resume (from Ruby Braff to Anthony Braxton) is a testament to his individuality. Far from a clone, Scott plays Scott in all these settings, adjusting his point of view as naturally as one would alter one's mode of expression at a family gathering, where one had to speak to grandparents, siblings, cousins and nieces and nephews. It is also clear that Robinson respects the music's past enough not to limit himself to only one avenue of expression. We have organ trios, a string quartet, trios with acoustic guitar and either bass or bass marimba, quartets with electric guitar, quintets which add a trumpet, and a series of duets with piano. Add to that the program, which ranges from Saint-Saëns to Ellington to Beiderbecke to Robinson, and you can see that you're in for a hell of a ride.

Scott has dealt with the history of the C melody saxophone in his accompanying notes, and the opening selection grounds us in the instrument's historical and musical context and demonstrates Robinson's insistence on bringing it into the 21st century.

The program begins with one of cornetist Bix Beiderbecke's earliest compositions, Davenport Blues. Several things become readily apparent: the recording quality, the arrangement and the playing are all on the same extraordinarily high level. Each instrument in the rhythm section is audible, yet the blend essential to their sounding like one unit is never lost (believe or not, that is a great achievement in these post-multi tracking, booth-laden recording studio days). The leader's saxophone has been recorded from a vantagepoint far enough away from the bell of his horn to let the overtones speak in the air and the tone to blend with the other instruments. Jay Newland, the recording engineer has clearly gone down the path of letting the musicians determine their own balance and dynamics, and then to capture their blend, not to impose his "sound" on them. Beiderbecke's multi-themed piece has been arranged by Robinson with characteristic ingenuity and simplicity. The introduction and coda are variations from the tune itself, and the 32 bar blowing choruses flow effortlessly, one into another, preceded by Chirillo's bluesy take on the 16-bar verse. Robinson has assembled a rare group of musicians who take on the totality of a song when improvising on it - the harmony, the melody and the rhythm - and the results are a joy to hear.

A gifted composer himself, Scott lets the tune be the medium, directing the flow to enhance its inherent nature. And even though, as you will hear, Scott can evoke the spirit of Trumbauer when so moved, he makes the C melody do things ol' Tram never did. Most players who master a given tradition (or traditions, in Scott's case) as assiduously as Robinson has, oft times get stuck in it to the point that the external mannerisms supercede the essence. This is clearly not the case for our man Robinson.

Scott first heard Where Is Love?, from the Broadway show Oliver, while playing on a Walt Weiskopf Criss Cross date a couple of years ago. This succinct version is introduced by pianist Larry Ham, who delivers it with elegance and avoids all the easily "pretty" parts built into the tune. There then follows another chorus of melody-inspired music from Robinson accompanied by a string quartet, always letting the song shine in all its different contours. That's it. No blowing section, no double-time. No super-altered chord changes that, as they frequently do, poke sardonic fun at the original. All quotes from Scott are in "italics": "I've long felt that the C-melody would be the perfect match for strings, and this was my chance to finally try it out. The string arrangements were mostly written on the bus in Japan, since we did this record right after I returned from a long tour there. I was nervous about it because, other than a class project while in college, it was my first attempt at writing for strings. The possibilities of the string instruments are so vast in terms of range, texture, and method of playing, that it is difficult not to feel as though one is failing to do them justice. Then there is the fact that these people spend their lives playing Bartok and Brahms! Nevertheless, I hope to do a more ambitious orchestral project in the future."

From there we are taken, via acoustic guitar and bass marimba (what a timbre - shades of Nelson Riddle!) to the verse of a lovely 1928 Walter Donaldson tune, Just Like A Melody Out Of The Sky, and Scott has managed to realize the title's ambition with his surprising and perfectly placed entrance into the chorus. Once again, the tune is the thing - with its logically flowing diatonic harmonies enhanced by the trio's variations. Marty Grosz has made a life's study out of the pre-Charlie Christian guitar world, and his incessant drive and love of traditional jazz are truly unique: hear his high-handed harmonic sophistication and refreshing brand of musical humor here. "People like Marty Grosz put the lie to the foolish idea that traditional jazz forms are somehow less creative. His playing is perfect for these pieces - highly personal, and quirky in the best sense. And he likes Sun Ra!"

Billy Strayhorn's ballad Isfahan originally featured Johnny Hodges, and was introduced as part of Ellington's Far East Suite. "I hear the organ as having the possibilities of an alternate big band, with lots of dynamics, different sounds ... it's really a big band in a box." Scott's decision to play a tune so readily associated with a specific orchestration in a radically different setting (organ combo) reveals new facets of the composition, and permits him to put his own stamp on it, not just in terms of the instrumentation, but also in the general mise-en-scene. For instance, the organ brings with it its own set of associations. Indeed, Robinson is a musical transmigrator who revels in passing from one setting to another - highlighting what the pieces have in common and what they don't. The resulting juxtapositions are transfinite, not only within each selection, but tune to tune throughout the album.

Yardville is a town in New Jersey, and Scott liked the name so much that he borrowed it for this loping piece (loosely based on Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite") that reflects his admiration for the Tristanoite tenorist Warne Marsh. Guitarist James Chirillo makes a perfect foil for Robinson in both the melody and solo segments. The composer of, among other things, a concerto for clarinet and jazz orchestra, Chirillo plays with a composer's sense of timbre and structure.

The strings reappear for the World War II song I'm Making Believe, which Robinson first heard on his uncle's player piano. There is the potential for a real musical unanimity when a player plays off of backgrounds he wrote himself: here, it illuminates Scott's melodic conception.

Saxophone Blues raises the spectre of Rudy Weidoeft, who was an immensely popular saxophonist of the 20s whose records sold like hot cakes. He came of musical age before jazz did, and was a virtuoso of the first water (he could articulate like a jack rabbit) who commanded respect from all musical quarters. "Saxophone Blues comes from one of my very first record finds, a Brunswick 78 of Rudy Wiedoeft with vocalist Ernest Hare, that I found when I was a kid. The vocals are a riot, about a 'Cap'n Sam' who 'plays blue music on his saxophone':

'When he plays his instrument, the landlord wants his rent.
I ain't got a cent, yet I got the Saxophone Blues.'

There is a wonderful Wiedoeft C-melody solo full of slap tonguing and other effects, while Hare exhorts him to 'Lay right on it, son', and 'Ruin it! Ruin it!' I borrowed these vocal interjections for my otherwise updated version."

Once again, Robinson goes from one selection to another, making what in lesser hands would be impossible juxtapositions that should, for all intents and purposes, rattle one's aesthetic antennas to the point of distortion. But that doesn't happen. Not by a long shot. What occurs, instead, is an expansion of the frame of reference.

Drummer Klaus Suonsaari, a long-time friend and musical partner of Scott's, plays a large role in making the music on this album come alive. Jazz is, after all, rhythm, and Klaus has found the rhythmic common denominators that underlie the wide stylistic territories Robinson has staked out for this ambitious project. In other words, Mr. Suonsaari can swing no matter where you put him. The two bassists, Lee Hudson and Greg Cohen, are similarly tremendously versatile players who can assert their individuality while fulfilling their primarily accompanimental roles.

Pianist Mark Shane makes his first appearance on the next two quartet titles playing first the piano and then the organ, where he evokes the elegant way Fats Waller handled the instrument. This Is No Laughing Matter came Scott's way on a recording with trombonist Dan Barrett and vocalist Becky Kilgore (I Saw Stars, ARCD 19136), while Ed Wilcox's Sweet Rhythm (written for Jimmie Lunceford) was in the Vince Giordano book while Scott was in the band. Bassist Greg Cohen manages to swing the bass marimba through some rather complex manipulations of the mallets and the bars - no easy feat. "I might also point out that I am very fortunate to have the bass marimba used here, which is believed to be the same instrument Sun Ra played on his landmark recording 'Heliocentric Worlds', in 1965."

Le Cygne (The Swan) is the most well-known selection from Camille Saint-Saëns' Le Carnaval des Animaux (Grande Fantaisie Zöologique), and the only one published during the composer's lifetime. Though known primarily as a cello solo, it was also recorded by the theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore, which is how Scott (hear his theremin on On A Turquoise Cloud on his previous Arbors CD, Thinking Big, ARCD 19179) came to know it.

"My young friend, Ben Schwab, came up with the title Ups and Downs, which immediately suggested a certain kind of tune to me. So I wrote the music to fit the title." Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and pianist Shane get a 52nd Street-John Kirby groove going on this challenging piece, with its chromatic harmonies, all undergirded by Suonsaari's spanking brushes (shades of Jo Jones!). Robinson clearly gave much forethought in deploying his musicians throughout this session. The material is matched to the players to bring out his conception, and this is the mark of a true bandleader.

The superb string playing here should not be taken for granted, and neither should Robinson's imaginative writing for them. The high-water marks of string writing in jazz contexts have been so few and far between (one of them is the album An Image that Bill Russo did for Lee Konitz, and I hear echoes of Lee's plaintive ruminations in Scott's gorgeous playing here) that the genre itself has taken on a mundane quality in many listener's minds. "I always wipe my eyes when I hear Bing Crosby sing Count Your Blessings to Rosemary Clooney in the movie "White Christmas".This arrangement is just C-melody and string quartet, and is entirely rubato." Robinson's arrangement mines the song's contrapuntal potential, and eschews cliches in favor of a through-composed treatment, with none of the repeated sections and whole notes that have marred the great majority of attempts at horn with string section accompaniment. Counterpoint is among the most rewarding and difficult disciplines to master in musical composition (indeed, in all the arts) and Scott's success at spinning out a seamless thread in this fashion will hopefully plant the seeds for further Robinsonian explorations on a larger scale.

The following pair of tunes assay the legacies of Frank Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke in a fashion that only Scott Robinson could. For No Reason At All In C was a themeless improvisation on the chord changes of I'd Climb The Highest Mountain that Bix (on piano, save for a few golden cornet notes in the coda), Tram and guitarist Eddie Lang recorded in the spring of 1927. This performance is a variation on the original, and Robinson and Grosz go out of their way to pay homage to the original performances. I have never heard anyone get as close to Trumbauer's gracefully swooping phrasing as Robinson does on this track.

Singin' The Blues takes a different approach. Hearing pianist Marian McPartland play it as a rubato ballad at husband Jimmy's funeral (he had been Beiderbecke's replacement in the legendary Wolverines back in 1925) inspired Scott to play it here as a duo with the Hammond organ. It remains a beautiful tune, and hopefully this recording will help introduce it back into the mainstream of the jazz repertoire where it belongs. Listen for Bix's original I'm Coming Virginia coda, played lovingly by Scott. It's a great moment.

Another Robinsonian whammy of a juxtaposition is awaiting us with C Here. "I wanted a very open kind of sound, so I asked Larry Ham not to really play bass on the organ. So it's deliberately kind of 'bottomless'." Here we have Scott and Suonsaari wailing in a manner reminiscent of John Coltrane and Elvin Jones, set off by Ham's organ. As Dan Morgenstern commented very recently, the thing about Scott is that his playing "is so idiomatically correct." This is far from being an indictment, for all art deals in idioms, and there are no boundaries in Scott's musical brain as he goes from one idiom to another, which is a large part of what makes him so unique. So much of the current jazz scene is divided rigorously by musicians, critics and fans alike into reductive labels and/or "schools", that Scott's broad conception is truly like a breath of fresh air.

"I got A Melody From The Sky from banjoist Eddy Davis. I'm currently holding down what must be the only steady C-melody gig in New York, Wednesdays at the Cajun Restaurant with Eddy (when I'm in town). Incidentally, I think Mark Shane's solo on this is one of the most beautiful things on the record. It was one of those one-take things done at the end of the date."

I have spent hundreds of hours making music in the company of Scott Robinson over the last several years in many different contexts, and there is an element of music coming down from the sky and being transmitted through him that has tangibly spiritual overtones. There are mechanical skills (sight-reading, dexterity, and all those instruments) that have placed him on virtually everyone's "A" list, but way beyond those are the more subtle realms of interpretation and improvisation. To put it another way, there is no grinding of gears when Scott plays. Music flows right out of him; here he has channeled it through the C-melody saxophone.

Let's leave the last word to Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist:

"Please, sir, I want some more!"

- Loren Schoenberg, San Sebastian, Spain, July 1999