From the beginning, there have been multi-instrumentalists in jazz. In the early years of the century, New Orleans had its Manuel Manetta, a Buddy Bolden associate who performed on and taught all instruments and was known for his ability to play trumpet and trombone simultaneously and in harmony. Sidney Bechet achieved a recording first in jazz when he overdubbed soprano and tenor saxophones, clarinet, piano, string bass and drums for his 1941 "Sheik of Araby." Rahsaan Roland Kirk often blew three saxophones at the same time. The tradition continued with performers like Ira Sullivan, who plays several saxophones, trumpet, flugelhorn and flutes, and Anthony Braxton, who has a veritable arsenal of reed instruments.
Now comes Scott Robinson, who grew up in Fairfax County, attended Herndon High School in the '70s, earned a degree from Boston's Berklee College of Music in 1981 and then became, at 22, the youngest person ever appointed to that school's faculty. Robinson's album, "Multiple Instruments," features him playing more than 30 woodwind, brass and percussion instruments. In addition to the expected -- trumpet, trombone, various saxophones, percussion accessories -- Robinson is heard on such esoterica as Highland bagpipes, ophicleide (a large, beep-toned brass instrument), normathon (a slide saxophone) and solaristic sound sculptures ("metal sculptures played with a cello bow," Robinson says).
Robinson, who now lives in New York, will be at the One Step Down tonight and Saturday with his quartet. He promises to bring a selection of horns and percussion devices that will generously represent several families of instruments. He's talking tenor, soprano, C-melody and bass saxophones; clarinet; cornet; valve trombone and mellophone. Niels Lan Doky will be at the piano, Ira Coleman on bass and Klaus Suonsaari, drums.
Early in elementary school, Robinson's expressiveness on his first instrument, the kazoo, prompted his teachers to showcase his talents in front of the class. Some time later, a teacher read aloud Mary Stolz's "The Bully of Barkham Street," a children's book "about a kid who, whenever he felt bad about something, would play his saxophone and feel better." That did it for Robinson: He had to have a saxophone.
Providentially, his grandfather found one in his attic and presented it to Robinson, then a fourth grader. A year or so of self-instruction later, Robinson came across a battered tenor saxophone in an antique shop, and he saved his money and bought it. Baritone and C-melody saxophones, flute and clarinet were added before he finished high school. Trumpet, another junk store find, started Robinson on the brass family.
"So I gradually amassed a collection," says Robinson, who now stores his more than 100 instruments in four different locations. "I have a liking for the bizarre," he confesses. Candidates for this category would certainly include his bombarde, a double-reed traditional French folk instrument, and the rotary valved posthorn, an early model of the flugelhorn.
But don't dismiss Robinson as a dilettante: He has mastered his instruments, as a close listening to his album will attest. Some cuts employ overdubbing, notably "Muskrat Ramble," which has him exercising his chops on enough horns and rhythm instruments to simulate a New Orleans-style marching unit, and "Survival on Venus (A Science Fiction Fantasy)," on which one loses count. For "Ben," his tribute to saxophonist Ben Webster, Robinson plays only tenor.
Inevitably, the nagging question surfaces. Why would anyone want to learn, and then keep up on, such a battery of instruments?
"For me it's really a fascination with sound," explains Robinson, whose jazz listening habits have long included a spectrum from Louis Armstrong to Sun Ra. "As a composer and as an instrumentalist, when I hear a sound that I like from a particular instrument, right away I have ideas for where I can use that sound.
"It's amazing how many sounds you can achieve with just acoustical sound production sources. You know, I really haven't gotten into synthesizers. To me, it's too much fun fooling around with acoustical sounds. I used to have a friend at Berklee, a wonderful Czechoslovakian pianist, and he used to say, 'You're the living synthesizer.' That was a great compliment."