Thursday, July 11, 2019

Scott Robinson: The Man in the reed hat: Tenormore

Scott Robinson sporting his reed hat Tenormore

It’s satisfying to see the multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson receiving increasing recognition for his artful and often adventurous playing. His versatility and proficiency on a variety of over three hundred instruments in his curated personal instrument cache is nothing short of a herculean achievement. His collection includes a battery of multi-sized and keyed woodwinds, an array of brass horns and an assortment of musical oddities. Some of the rarest are his contrabass saxophone (reportedly only one of twenty playable units in existence), his bass Marimba and his extraterrestrial sounding Theremin. Despite his notoriety of having the curiosity of a mad scientist, Scott is an expert who can deploy any number of breath and tonal techniques to serve his musical muse.  His expertise on the woodwinds has kept him most in demand by other musical composers and big band arrangers. Like any indispensable musician whose presence is crucial to the whole sound, he anchors the woodwind group in such estimable big bands as the notable Maria Schneider Orchestra, The Mingus Big Band, The Vanguard Big Band and even had an appearance with the Sun Rah Arkestra to name a few. Let’s face it, Robinson is one of those players that define the concept of being a virtuoso.

In recent years, Robinson has often been sought after for his impressive ability on the baritone saxophone but make no mistake it is the tenor saxophone that is this man’s first musical love.  Just to make the point, Robinson came out recently with an album that exclusively features his work on his vintage circa 1924 silver Conn tenor. The album titled Tenormore, is a joyful collection of five adventurous Robinson compositions, four standards that are brilliantly imagined and one Americana-styled ballad by bassist Martin Wind. Besides his compatriot Wind on bass, Robinson is ably joined by the accomplished pianist Helen Sung on piano and B3 organ, longtime associate and journeyman drummer Dennis Mackrel and on one song joined by his classically trained wife Sharon on flute.

It opens with a soulful a version of Lennon-McCartney’s “And I Love Her,” deliciously played with feeling by an artist who admits “I’m not a Beatles fan.” A four-note melody was stuck in his mind before he discovered it was from this Beatles song. Like being given a sign from his psyche, Robinson became determined to capture his thoughts on this music.  At the end of a long session, after all the other musicians had left, Robinson recorded the song in one take. He played it unaccompanied, squeezing every expression possible from his, by then, split reed.  Robinson’s take is a re imagination of this 1964 song in a way that elevates the once pop tune into an expressive declaration of earnest love.

Robinson’s compositions include a probing, eleven-bar blues titled “Tenor Eleven” where the tenor man’s effortless facility on his horn is apparent. He guides us through an improvisational path around the changes, the path is sometimes daring, unpredictable, but like a competent shepherd he never loses those who trust his lead. Near the coda, Robinson’s declaratory saxophone stirs a brief but excited give and take exchange with drummer Mackrel, whose intuitive trap work makes him Robinson’s perfect foil.

Standards worth exploring are Scott’s emotive, slow-paced version of “Put on a Happy Face,” from the Broadway and film show Bye Bye Birdie.  Scott’s distinctively slow and baleful approach chooses to project the sentiment of the composition from the place of sadness. His playing is heartfelt and simply exquisite.

“The Good Life,” originally sung by Tony Bennett in 1963, opens with an adventurous improvisational section that doesn’t give away the tune’s identity. Robinson loves keeping the audience in the dark until Scott’s sensitive saxophone introduces the melody.  Wind’s solo on bass is an exceptionally artful addition.

Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You” was first released in 1938, but here Robinson’s modern approach opens it with a funky bass line by Wind and some soulful modulating B3 work by Sung and some back beat trap work by Mackrel. Scott’s saxophone is soulful at times gritty but always joyful and inspired.

“Morning Star” is a happy, fluid, swinger that Robinson wrote for his wife Sharon as a Valentine’s gift. Pianist Sung’s keyboard work on this is beautiful and exceptionally buoyant, as Wind’s bass walks with authority and a bit of attitude. Robinson’s saxophone is distinctive and flawless.

“Tenor Twelve” is an F blues that Robinson originally released in 1988 on his album Winds of Change. Like the mad scientist never satisfied with stasis, he is always looking to improve his creations and so Robinson rewrote this tune for this date and by his inkling, made it better. With an exceptionally beautiful and swinging piano solo, Sung makes it clear that she is a pianist whose sensitivity and technique are not to be ignored. Like the inside works of a precision 
timepiece, this rhythm team of Wind and Mackrel percolates never losing a beat.

Martin Wind’s soulful “Rainy River” is introduced by Sung’s gospel inspired B3. Robinson explores the emotional depths of this revival-like composition with his breathy attack that captures his vintage saxophone’s beautiful depth of tone. He restricts himself to the melody, no improvising here, but he extracts the music’s emotional sentiment utilizing the instruments full range and soars into the higher register for effect.  

 “The Weaver” is composition dedicated to Robinson’s father David. It starts with a recording from his father reading one of his poems at Scott and Sharon’s wedding back in 2001. Sharon attended Boston Conservatory and is a classically trained flautist. Scott followed his own jazz muse at Berklee.  Here the song is both a description of the poem’s theme as well as a woven mixture of two musical themes and thus the name “The Weaver.”  Scott’s saxophone weaves beautifully with Sharon’s flute as the music follows a five, seven, five pattern that mimics the syllabic structure of a haiku. Scott’s ability to aurally notate his intellectual intentions so precisely is a delight. Wind’s strong bass line is structural to the song.

“Tenormore” is the title of the album and the final cut on the cd. A complex piece that has rhythmically challenging changes that could easily astound other less qualified band-mates.  Listen carefully to Robinson’s precise intonation, uncanny ability to utilize the full register of the instrument flawlessly and to send the listener to uncharted territories, sometimes on the fly! Sung’s feverish piano explorations are equally impressive.  Wind and Mackrel adapt to Scott’s inspired direction, never losing their rhythmic anchor, no matter how far out the adventurer takes the show. This group is a well-oiled machine that is up to any challenge this master throws their way, what a fitting present as this man recently reached his sixtieth birthday. Happy Birthday Scott!!!

Back in 2010, Scott and I had an exchange over my contention that some jazz was more accessible than others and consequently accessibility might lead to expanding the audience to jazz. His take was that adventurous music could be just as accessible to anyone who was open enough to give it a serious listen. I have come to agree with him as this album Tenormore surely confirms. You can read that conversation by clicking here.

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