Melody From the Sky — Scott Robinson, a Review

March 18, 2012 by  

I downloaded this album, originally released in 1999, from eMusic recently, as it had a favorite guitar player of mine (acoustic guitarist and raconteur Marty Grosz), and loaded it on my iPod where it mixed in with almost 11,000 other tunes. I think I played the album once while driving (went to the recently loaded playlist), but it must have been a brutal commute (I drive 90 miles a day) and I must not have been paying much attention.

Well, last night, I put the iPod on Shuffle before going to bed (I bought one of those iHome clock radios–saved 10 bucks at Costco), and one of the first tunes I heard was Scott Robinson playing a wild romp called Ups and Downs, which was mainly a series of downward moving chord progressions. A few things hit me immediately (and prompted me to turn the lights on, find a pen, and write down the artist and title so I could listen again in the morning): the lead sax, played by Robinson, sounded like the now almost unheard of C-Melody saxophone, which marked the sound of famed 1920s-vintage player Frankie Trumbauer (Tram). Virtually unknown today, the C-Melody sax is pitched somewhere between an Alto and a Tenor, and possesses a sound unlike any other. Tram played with the legendary Bix Beiderbecke (coronet), Eddie Lang (guitar), Joe Venuti (violin), and others, and had a unique sound. He is known today for tunes like For No Reason At All In C, Davenport Blues, and others. Famed tenor player Lester Young often said he was influenced more by the sound of Tram’s C-melody sax, than the more popular deeper-register tone of his contemporary, Coleman Hawkins, and that influence helped him develop a sound using more of the tenor’s upper register.

The following clip from YouTube is a solo piece on his C-Melody sax, playing in a variety of styles from swing to bop.

Back to Ups and Downs…the band has a really tight sound–a bit of the old, with a lot of the new. It seemed like a combination of the old Bix/Tram groups with an underlying theme that shouted early 50s swinging bebop (other reviewers probably more accurately described it as the 52nd Street sound). I’m not even sure I described it correctly, but it was a wild trip with tempo waaaaay up here, and swinging like a, well, it really swung (you musician-types know what I wanted to say there, but this is a family blog after all).

Robinson moves through the decades, from the late 20s stuff described above, up to a 1950s-60s bebop sound on other pieces. The ballads, like Where is Love, and Making Believe (as nice as it was, my favorite is still the version with Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass), were pleasant enough, and even loaded up with lush strings (suddenly it’s Paul Weston!), but the real strength of this recording is in the songs of the 20s and 30s, with Marty Grosz leading the rhythm section on his acoustic 1930 Gibson L-5, and accompanied by bassist Greg Cohen.

Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn are represented in a lush arrangement of Isfahan that includes some soulful Hammond B-3 organ playing by Larry Ham. Yardville is pure hard driving, swinging 50s bebop. Robinson starts the tune playing the head in unison with electric guitarist James Chirillo. Bassist Lee Hudson is hanging on for dear life. The B-3 is dusted off once again for Singin’.

Classical composer Camille Saint-Saens is even represented with The Swan, with Larry Ham providing piano accompaniment.

The string section comes back to assist Robinson with Irving Berlin’s lovely Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep, made famous by Rosemary Clooney. Like Les Paul once said, “if that doesn’t grab you by the a**, …”

Drummer Klaus Suonsaari is given some room to stretch out with the very modern post-bop tune C Here, a Robinson original.

Finally, the title tune A Melody from the Sky. Pianist Shane evokes a bit of stride player Dick Wellstood, who died way too soon, in what starts off as a very laid back arrangement. I’m used to a more bracing version, such as the Classic Jazz Quartet’s 1980s swinging rendition (with Wellstood), but this one has its own charms. You just can’t help tapping your feet and humming along, much to the consternation of those around you, but when it’s that good, who cares?

There are 16 great tunes on this album–all have merit. I couldn’t leave without crediting Jon-Erik Kellso for some very fine trumpet work.

If you are a fan of the obscure C-Melody sax, or just like wonderful swinging jazz, you can’t do much better than this. Highly recommended.

This recording can also be obtained in the more usual CD form factor from Arbors Jazz, and from the other usual music sources.