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Overdue Ovation: Scott Robinson

In suburban New Jersey, new sonic frontiers

Scott Robinson’s instrumental arsenal for his Doctette performance at the 2015 Newport Jazz Festival
Scott Robinson

Like any self-respecting mad scientist, Scott Robinson, 56, hides his secret lab away from prying eyes. The headquarters of ScienSonic Laboratories is cleverly disguised as a quaint, well-manicured suburban home in Teaneck, N.J. Look more closely at the heavy wooden doors of the converted two-car garage-guarded by Robinson’s pet rabbit, Tribble, in an attached “rabbitat”-and you’ll notice a small plaque reading “Lab A: Sonic Research.”

Inside is a variety of strange devices and apparatuses that would make any Frankenstein or Moreau proud, albeit with more strings, bells and horns. The Jersey-born, Virginia-raised saxophonist has been toiling in this space since 2007 to create “Worlds of Tomorrow Through Sound.”

The equipment in this laboratory consists of hundreds of unusual instruments collected by Robinson over decades spent scouring flea markets and junk shops. Walking into the cluttered confines of the lab, one can feel like the Incredible Shrinking Man, surrounded by the oversize contrabass saxophone, bass and contrabass banjos and enormous drums. A half-dozen Theremins, including a rare Robert Moog creation, are scattered around the room, while smaller percussion instruments literally hang from the rafters. Two vibraphones, a set of tuned bells, boobams and a bass tarogato are visible. A gleaming spacesuit hangs on one wall, while a recent acquisition, a 12-foot alphorn, sits disassembled in its case.

“This is my world,” Robinson says, entering the room in a gray button-up shirt bedecked with colorful, cartoonish test tubes and beakers. “I’ve spent a lifetime putting together an incredible arsenal of instruments, but it’s not really about the instruments-it’s about the sounds. But in order to reach all these different sounds you have to have the tools to do it.”

The lab only scratches the surface of Robinson’s extensive instrument collection. A narrow path in his basement cuts through stacks of instruments awaiting repair, while the staircase ends at the “Wall of the Ancients,” a lineup of mostly unplayable artifacts that includes a backwards-facing Civil War-era alto horn (“Miles Davis should’ve had one of these,” Robinson jokes) and a bass rothophone.

The collection began innocently enough, he claims. “I started on an instrument which lends itself to playing other instruments. The saxophone is a family of instruments, so if you can play one you can pretty much play another. So it’s an instrument that has a tendency to launch you out into other areas of sound. Most saxophonists will stop at a certain point; I just never stopped.”

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