Scott Robinson brings the spirit of pulp fiction, and a love of outer space, to the Newport Jazz Festival.
By Noah Schaffer
Multi-instrumentalist and mad scientist Scott Robinson has carved out an unusually singular spot in the jazz world. He’s a first-call sideman, a collector and player of rare and unusual instruments, the Investigative Head of Sonic Research for the ScienSonic Laboratories label, and one of the few artists who is truly revered by both jazz’s traditional and avant-garde camps.
While he’s often played the Newport Jazz Festival (July 31 through August 2) with other leader’s bands, 2015 sees him making his debut as a leader with the Sunday appearance of the Doctette, an outfit inspired by the 1930’s and ’40s pulp fiction character Doc Savage. He’ll also be appearing on Friday and Saturday with festival regulars John Hollenbeck and the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Recently, Robinson spoke to The Arts Fuse from his New Jersey home about how he came to be jazz’s most eclectic player.
Arts Fuse: Let’s start with the Doctette. Obviously you’re a big fan of Doc Savage paperbacks. How did that translate into compositions?
Scott Robinson: All this music on our album Bronze Nemesis is based on titles in the Doc Savage pulp adventure novels. 181 novels were published in pulp magazine form, and Doc has gone up against all kinds of nefarious inventions and crazy evil geniuses. I think some people expect the music will sound like that period, but it’s not about evoking the time, it’s about the titles of these novels and the dangerous situations that they suggest. The fascinating thing about Doc Savage is that he was trained from birth by a team of scientists to develop every muscle, perceptive sense, and faculty that humans possess to the highest level. He has no special powers. Instead he developed his abilities through diligent exercise and mathematical routines and all kinds of stuff and that’s what is so fascinating. As a musician I can relate to that because someone like me is trying to excel as a composer, excel with ideas and creativity, excel on brass and reeds as a player. So I take the inspiration of Doc Savage very seriously, even though the books themselves were largely directed toward juvenile readers.
AF: You’ve played Newport quite a bit as a sideman — what led to this booking?
Robinson: It’s a big deal for me. I sent [festival founder] George Wein the Doctette album and I didn’t hear anything, and the next time I saw him was when I was playing with Maria Schneider. I asked what he thought of it, and he said one word – “Weird.” Then I got the word that he wanted to hire me. I asked what group I should bring – like a regular quartet – and I was told to bring the Doctette. So I guess weird is good!
AF: The album features the theremin. I wonder if this will be the first time someone has played that instrument at Newport.
Robinson: I have no way of knowing! When I started playing it in the ’80s it was unheard of. There was nobody playing it. The documentary about it fired up a lot of people and it’s made a big comeback. I was just in Hungary and the hotel lobby had a theremin in it. We used a really rare theremin in the Doctette recording. It’s from 1954 – it was Moog’s first commercial instrument and he only made 20 of them.
AF: There’s all this talk about with the audience for jazz shrinking there needs to be efforts to expose new audiences to the music. To that extent you’ve appeared at a few non-jazz events. Let’s start with the DocCon Doc Savage convention.
Robinson: It’s always a happy circumstance when you can appeal to a different type of crowd. I don’t consciously set out to do that, I don’t think about whether music will be “accessible” — I hate that word! I follow the music. But then the music leads to a lot of different places. A lot of interest in the Doctette was shown by people coming from the Doc Savage angle and not the jazz angle, and that’s great! Some of them really love and respond to the music. Others are collectors who have to have everything related to Doc Savage. So I went to DocCon and gave a presentation. People were fascinated about how I got permission from Conde Naste and Columbia Pictures and Jim Bama, the artist who did the Bantam Paperback Doc Savage covers in the ’60s. He’s a god to Doc Savage fans. Not everyone thinks about G 7th sharp 9.
AF: You were also recently at the Space Foundation’s annual Space Symposium.
Robinson: I created ScienSonic Laboratories label to do really adventurous outer space music. I decided that some of the proceeds should be designated towards a charity related to space exploration. We selected the Space Foundation and as it turns out they have a certification program. It’s like a Good Housekeeping Seal for certified space technology products … I sent them these far out CDs with crazy outer space covers which I thought they’d ignore but it turns out they have a designation for Space Imagination creative products. So all of our CDs have the Space Foundation certificate seal on them. They invited me to their annual symposium and I got to play and hang out with astronauts and scientists. It’s really neat to get outside of the jazz ghetto and reach people who might be interested in the music from the outer space angle.
Another thing I just came back from was Hungary’s Tárogató World Congress. I played and wrote a new piece. The Hungarian Cultural Center in New York helped make it possible. The Tárogató is somewhere between a saxophone and a clarinet. It’s a unique Hungarian instrument. So I love jazz festivals but I also love it when music takes me outside of the jazz world.
Robinson: He was actually a musician before he was a scientist! We went to Berklee together. He was my randomly assigned roommate in 1977. Musically we have a connection that only happens when I play with him. The two of us performed around Boston for many years. He was always reading science books and left Berklee and science took over. And we’ve played at a psychological conference.
AF: Earlier you mentioned the artwork for the Doctette album. The other ScienSonic releases feature space-related artwork by Richard Powers.
Robinson: Richard Powers is an artist who has made a lot of music possible. He really fired up my imagination when I was just a kid, much the same way music did. He provided the cover artwork for many science fiction books and paperbacks in the ’50s and ’60s. Powers created a different visual look for sci-fi — it became much more abstract. Before him it was mostly rocket ships and girls in skin-tight space suits. Powers’ art is much more what I think you’d really see if you could enter another world. He’s the equivalent of Sun Ra or Ornette Coleman. He came up with what was going on, and said OK, that’s good, but I’m heading [in a different direction], and did in such powerful way that he had an enormous influence. I hear music when I look at these paintings. I’ve gotten to know his family and we have an agreement to use his art on our covers.
AF: It’s not unusual for you to play one night with a big band or at a very mainstream or traditional jazz party and then show up the next night doing free improv at the Stone [the New York John Zorn-affiliated venue] or make a record with Sun Ra Arkestra leader Marshall Allen. What’s it like being a part of both of those jazz worlds?
Robinson: I was always interested in music from so many different angles in terms of listening and as a player. I reached a point in high school where I could see I’d be serious about music, and with that realization came a kind of dismay because I thought now that I’m going to be a musician I have to decide what kind of music I’m going to play. I love modern jazz but what about old timey tunes and Louis Armstrong? I love that so much and don’t want to give it up. But if I played the older swinging music what about the crazy sounds that I love? I went through a brief period of turmoil over this issue. Maybe it was the one time in my life that I was helped by how I’m incredibly indecisive. I just kept playing and said “screw it – I’ll do whatever I want” and it all worked out kind of well.
There’s a myth going around that somehow modern music is more creative. That’s a bunch of baloney. Style has nothing to do with creativity. This idea that the music started primitive and then got better and better? Jelly Roll Morton sounds just as valid and wild and creative and modern today as anything else.
AF: Are some of your traditional jazz colleagues befuddled by your free improve work — or vice versa?
Robinson: There are people I work with have no idea of this double or quadruple life I live. I don’t think they know that I also do very different kinds of music, and that’s fine. In every musical sphere you find intolerance and that’s OK too, because some people have devoted their life to a certain thing, and I’m OK with that as long as they’re not too eager to be derogatory and they keep a civil tongue.
But most of my colleagues are open-minded people. For instance I just played with [traditional jazz trumpeter] Jon-Erik Kellso. He is plays in an early jazz style, but is unrelentingly creative. He doesn’t play licks, he doesn’t play other people’s stuff, he’s completely original. Trad jazz is not just playing like Armstrong. You can play like yourself and invent new ways of playing.
AF: A lot of the great avant-garde jazz artists are clearly rooted in earlier styles…
Robinson: But there’s intolerance there too. Some guys feel like the music is very political and either you give your life to only that music or you’re suspect. If you’re doing other music and getting paid for it that’s impure. But I’m close to people like Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton, giants of the avant-garde who don’t have any of that attitude. They’re open to everything. I was just at Louis Armstrong’s house and they have recordings there where he talks about how he loved marching bands and Italian singers and the Beatles. So I try to be pretty broad-minded. I like classical music, folk musics from around the world. I just shy away if it sounds more like dollar bills than music.
AF: Next year you’ll be debuting a large-scale project.
Robinson: The Orchestra of the Impossible! It’s been kicking around for a long long time. It will debut at the Stone in April 2016. The venue is John Zorn’s gift to the scene. He makes it available and the band takes the entire door. All he asks is that it be very creative music and for every set to be different. It will start with a solo set and as the week goes on it will get larger and larger finishing with the orchestra. It will have all these crazy instruments I’ve been collecting – giant saxophones, a contra bass banjo, a seven-and-a-half foot tuba, and the bass marimba that Sun Ra played on Heliocentric Worlds.
Over the past 15 years Noah Schaffer has written about otherwise unheralded musicians from the worlds of gospel, jazz, blues, Latin, African, reggae, Middle Eastern music, klezmer, polka and far beyond. He has won over ten awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association.