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Alumni Profile

Scott Robinson '81: Unusual Voices

  Scott Robinson '81 with his 6'8" contrabass saxophone
  David F. Robinson

Saxophonist Scott Robinson '81 has been a globe trotter since he left Berklee. Last year, Robinson went to Switzerland four times, Japan twice, and Norway, Italy, and the Czech Republic once each. Added to his domestic roadwork, Robinson totals a third of the year away. After two decades of touring, jet lag doesn't faze him. "It would be rougher on someone who keeps a regular schedule," Robinson says. "My life is kind of crazy, and every day is different. I have no set schedule, so I just grab some sleep when I can and keep on going."

Robinson is a much in-demand sideman with a lengthy discography. He has worked with jazzers John Scofield, Joe Lovano, Anthony Braxton, Ella Fitzgerald, Paquito D'Rivera, and pop stars Sting and Elton John. He has played on two Grammy-winning CDs, and several Grammy-nominated discs. He's also a Down Beat magazine poll winner. (For more information, visit http://home.earthlink.net/~smoulden/scott/scott.html.)

A veteran of the New York jazz scene, Robinson is known as much for his prowess as a multi-instrumentalist as he is for his collection of unusual and obsolete instruments ranging from the sarrusophone to the 6'8" tall contrabass saxophone (one of perhaps 16 in existence). They are souvenirs of his searches through antique stores in several countries in a quest to find rare brass and reed instruments.

As a fourth grader in Herndon, Virginia, Robinson became enamored of the saxophone and later was given the alto sax his grandfather bought new in 1927. It's still in his arsenal. He noted a sweet irony after playing it on Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion radio show behind singer Geoff Muldaur, who was performing music by Bix Beiderbecke. "Gramps's alto was the perfect horn for that gig," says Robinson. "Bix did some of his best work in 1927."

Robinson recalls becoming consumed by music during his high school years and coming to Berklee to major in jazz performance. He cites Greg Badolato, George Garzone, Phil Wilson, and John LaPorta as influential teachers. He also met fellow students who continue to influence his work.

"My classmates at Berklee came from all areas of life," he says. "Some came to Berklee after earning degrees elsewhere. I marvel at the number of people I knew that I run into out there playing. Among those who have great careers going now are Tommy Smith ['85], Jeff Watts ['81], and Greg Osby ['83].

"Two former students I am actively involved with today are Klaus Suonsaari ['84], a drummer and composer, and Jules Thayer ['81], my first roommate. Klaus owns a record label and we've worked together on numerous projects over the years. Jules went on to earn his Ph.D. and is now a psychophysiologist working for the National Institutes of Health. He's a bassist, and we've done multimedia projects involving improvisational music and videography with real-time transformation of the videographic images based on the music."

The international students Robinson befriended at Berklee helped him in the summer of 1984 when he decided to seek out gigs in Europe. "I put out a self-produced LP, sent out packages, and was amazed at the response I got," says Robinson. "Leonard Feather called me and a man who was booking the North Sea Jazz Festival called. I got gigs out of it and ended up staying with friends in Denmark, Scotland, and France that summer. It also led to other work."

Since moving to New York in 1984, Robinson has steadily built his reputation. He recently got in touch with how busy his career has become after reading a review that noted that Robinson adds one new recording his discography monthly. He appears on about 150 recordings, including seven of his own.

Two of Robinson's jazz outings have been released by Arbors Records, and a third, Jazz Ambassador, is slated for a spring release. The disc features Robinson's readings of music by Louis Armstrong from the repertoire performed during Robinson's 2001 State Department-sponsored tour of Africa.

Lately, Robinson has been itching to do something very different. "I have been a sideman in everyone's band for years," says Robinson. "I've had a variety of great experiences and now feel like exploring a direction I planned to go in years ago. I'm doing a lot of writing, and I'm building my sonic laboratory. I have hundreds of instruments that I have not yet used in the way I want to."

In his studio or sonic laboratory, Robinson hopes to document the unusual voices in his instrument collection. "That music won't be jazz," he says. "It's somewhere between concert music and otherworldly sound collages. I want to overdub combinations of instruments you'd never hear together to create unusual orchestras that no one has ever heard before. I plan to release that music myself on my own ScienSonic label."

Robinson's passion for low-pitched instruments is shared by others, too. He was asked to compose a series of chamber music pieces that he titled Immensities for Large Instruments. His latest, Immensity #3, will be premiered on April 24 by a French group comprising two contrabass clarinets, two basset horns, and a contrabassoon.

The indescribable power that offbeat instruments have on Robinson compels him to traverse continents to seek them out and learn to play them. It seems connected with the mysterious power that lures people into music for life. "Most of us who are destined to become musicians don't initially choose it as a profession," Robinson says. "I never made inroads into any other line of work. After high school, I came to Berklee, and after that, I never looked back. Music is so vast that you can just go in there and never come back out."