Lenny Robinson and Exploration quartet’s impressive performance


The Petworth Jazz Project — back this year from its pandemic hiatus — brings families and neighbors to the Petworth Recreation Center for a monthly summer jazz party. But with kids running around, people chatting and groups trying to find spots to squeeze into, it’s hard to tell how much attention the music gets. Do these nice people know what a great band they’re seeing in someone like drummer Lenny Robinson and his quartet, Exploration?

Robinson’s band was the headliner Saturday night. They played two 45-minute sets that were smart and infectious. At first glance, the performance seemed as if it was designed for the jazz nerds: The songs in the first set, for example, included lesser-known tunes by Kenny Garrett and Reuben Brown, plus a those-in-the-know Ellington composition. These choices turned out to be astute: Each was a highly melodic, hummable piece — an earworm — not too complicated to follow, but not so simple that the musicians couldn’t find treasures inside them.

Vibraphonist Chris Barrick and pianist Janelle Gill especially devoured “The Shade of the Cedar Tree.” Barrick played mostly darting, single-note lines studded with callbacks to the written melody. Gill, on the other hand, was more chordal, and if her piano figures were sometimes similar to Barrick’s, she put them to a more rhythmic, swinging purpose.

That turned out to be a running theme for Exploration. Gill subtly suggested a Caribbean lilt in some parts of her “Shade of the Cedar Tree” solo, which Robinson picked up on and turned into a full-on Latin groove in the song’s coda. He then revved up a propulsive opening solo on Garrett’s “Boogety Boogety,” in an arrangement that doubled down on the Afro-Caribbean hints that Gill had previously offered. It was here that Robinson and bassist Michael Bowie really showed their mettle: They were in an absolute lockstep, handling the soloists’ change-ups as one unit and chasing each other to thrilling new heights.

It’s only natural that events such as this are social, mingling occasions, especially coming out of two years of silence during the pandemic. The noisy, otherwise-occupied crowd was to be expected, and the one moment of music that truly did capture everyone’s attention was an unfortunate one: The sound system crashed briefly during Gill’s solo on a dramatic arrangement of Ellington’s “African Flower.” (The band couldn’t have been more professional; Gill kept playing, and once the sound was back on, Robinson counted her back in right where she’d left off.) Still, it’s frustrating to think how many people missed Gill’s stealthy “African Flower” blues or Barrick’s soulful 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 enjoyed themselves. Who’s to complain about that?

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