Playing to a tiny crowd, Vince Robinson and the Jazz Poets jammed out a variety of original and standard tunes with a dash of spoken word poetry Dec. 10 at the Broadview Heights Cultural Arts Building.
“There are five people in here,” Robinson said as he and his band got ready. “But we’re going to pretend like there are 500.” The crowd later grew to nine as the night progressed, but the band did indeed play with a gigantic sound. They also carried their music into the next night, as part of a two-day Broadview Heights Spotlights Community Theater Cabaret Series performance.
During their performance, Robinson frequently recognized and applauded his band mates. In his eyes — and to those who have attended their gigs — they were “world class musicians.” Leonard Jennings played a mean guitar, Derrick James laid down the bass lines, Reggie Holmes supplied the beats on his drum kit and special guest Greg Pickett provided an interesting undercurrent with the congas. Robinson, an accomplished slam poet, spent a lot of time at his keyboard, but also got up in front to recite some of his original poetry.
The cozy showroom was ensconced in a smooth ambience throughout the night. The small audience warmed up with coffee and brownies as the performers set up their instruments. The intimacy afforded by the low-key atmosphere was perfect for the jazz music that lit up the night.
Jazz is a style of music that lends itself well to mental imagery, providing sonic landscapes for the listener. Robinson and the band started off the night with a smoky, upbeat rendition of “ ’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The setting was very reminiscent of dark jazz clubs from the past. Flickering light sprang from small tea candles and lapped at the crimson walls, as the group alternated between relaxing jazz numbers and dizzying funk.
“Bacon Grease” was an original tune from early in the night that had the band members grooving in an enviable harmony. Watching the band perform, one could detect an unspoken synergy, a musical accord. Total Zen.
Aside from the poetry and the intermittent conversation with the audience, the instrumentals dominated the night. Among the guys on stage, there was certainly something special taking place.
The band has been performing for more than a decade now, Robinson said. They started jamming around 1997 and have played at a variety of venues, including the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The group members have become very tight over those years, forming a close bond during their performances. With just a glance or a nod, the song will shift and morph around a catchy hook. Within their craft, these cats are masters of nuance. And they’re having fun doing it.
“The thing about this drummer: He’s manipulative,” Robinson said with a smirk. “He makes people do this,” he said as he started swaying back and forth with the funky beat Holmes was pounding out.
“And I confess he got me,” Robinson said as he laughed his way back to the keyboard.
The band slipped a wide array of inspirations into their performance. Robinson wove his political and cultural muses into his poetry and music. During a particularly rousing hip-hop number, Robinson explored his own background and got the audience involved in a call-and-response segment.
During Robinson’s original poem “A House Divided,” he stepped back and took a look at the cultural history of Cleveland. As James dropped a mesmerizing bass line in the back, Robinson provided powerful imagery and spoke to the necessity of a diverse society.
“We should be looking for the good in all of us,” Robinson said after reciting his poem. “Because that’s what binds us.”
The night was filled with deep insights and contemplative music. When one is confronted with jazz music, things start to seem different. Due to its improvisational nature, jazz tends to distort the reality of the listener, sending him or her down the proverbial rabbit hole of imagination and reflection.
Robinson and the rest of the band were able to do just that. And on one hand, it’s a shame that the show was so thinly attended; however, those who were there were privy to a special meeting of the minds that won’t soon be forgotten.
(ed. note: this story appeared in the Dec. 23 edition of the Sun Star-Courier)