The impressive performance of the quartet Lenny Robinson and Exploration
Robinson’s band headlined Saturday night. They played two 45 minute sets which were smart and infectious. At first glance, the performance seemed to have been designed for jazz nerds: the songs from the first set, for example, included lesser-known tunes by Kenny Garrett and Reuben Brown, as well as a composition by Ellington for those in the know. running. . These choices turned out to be shrewd: each was a very melodic, hummable piece – an earworm – not too complicated to follow, but not so simple that musicians couldn’t find treasures inside.
Vibraphonist Chris Barrick and pianist Janelle Gill notably devoured “The Shade of the Cedar Tree”. Barrick played mostly single-note dart lines interspersed with callbacks to the written melody. Gill, on the other hand, was more chordal, and while her piano figures were sometimes similar to Barrick’s, she set them for a more rhythmic and swinging purpose.
This turned out to be a common theme for Exploration. Gill subtly hinted at a Caribbean beat in parts of his solo “Shade of the Cedar Tree”, which Robinson took over and turned into a full Latin groove in the song’s coda. He then launched a propulsive opening solo to Garrett’s “Boogety Boogety,” in an arrangement that doubled down on the Afro-Caribbean notes Gill had previously offered. It was here that Robinson and bassist Michael Bowie really showed their mettle: they were in perfect harmony, handling the changes of soloists as a single unit and continuing to exciting new heights.
It’s only natural that events like this are social and mingled occasions, especially coming out of two years of silence during the pandemic. A loud and otherwise busy crowd was to be expected, and the only moment of music that really caught everyone’s attention was unfortunate: the PA system briefly crashed during Gill’s solo on an arrangement drama of Ellington’s “African Flower”. (The band couldn’t have been more professional; Gill kept playing, and once the sound was restored, Robinson counted her down to where she left off.) Still, it’s frustrating to think of how many people missed Gill’s “stealth”. African Flower” blues or Barrick’s moving variations on a single vibraphone figure during Reuben Brown’s “Billy”.
But maybe this writer is just a joyless nag: everyone, band and jazz nerds included, clearly had a good time. Who can complain?