You can easily catch the spirit of a gospel performance, but jazz can be just as blissful, especially if the performer is in the “zone,” channeling something indefinable through their instrument.
Trineice Robinson-Martin, teacher, performer, author, scholar, and jazz voice instructor/lecturer at Princeton University, has such a quality to her voice, something that turns on a certain light of the soul.
Director of Princeton’s Jazz Vocal Collective (JVC) ensemble, Princeton University’s elite jazz student ensemble that features solo voice, Robinson-Martin has been singing and doing ministry in the church all her life. However, she hesitates to classify herself as strictly gospel.
“I’m at the point now in my life when I can say ‘I’m a jazz/gospel singer,’” she says, adding that she can minister to the hearts and minds of folks in many different ways, even through jazz.
“I always want to be a light for people and show them how to find the light in themselves,” Robinson-Martin says.
Also known as “Dr. Trineice,” Robinson-Martin will lead the Jazz Vocal Collective in the group’s spring concert celebrating the music and life of Nat King Cole on Monday, April 15, at 7:30 p.m. at Taplin Auditorium in Fine Hall on the campus of Princeton University. The event is free and non-ticketed. Although the April 15 concert is not part of the much-anticipated, first ever Princeton University Jazz Festival, Saturday, April 13, it was a happy occurrence that the JVC performance is so close on the calendar to the festival.
“This concert is dedicated to Nat King Cole for his centennial, and all the students will be picking and arranging his songs,” she says. “We often do dedications, especially centennials. For example, last year we celebrated Ella Fitzgerald, and next year it will be Charlie Parker.”
“I like legacy, am very particular about it, always thinking about the promotion and preservation of jazz,” says Robinson-Martin, who is also the executive director of the African American Jazz Caucus — the 501(c)3 charitable organization with the mission to protect, preserve, and perpetuate the rich cultural heritage of jazz. Its mailing address is in Trenton.
Robinson-Martin’s students are enjoying this music, but also learning about the cultural context of Nat King Cole’s recording career, especially in the 1950s and ’60s when the music industry was still, essentially, divided by race.
“I like to bring in the historical context and point out that Nat King Cole was so very successful on the pop charts, and a crooner at the same time as Frank Sinatra,” she says. In the 1950s Cole even had a TV show on the NBC network, the first TV variety show hosted by an African-American.
Robinson-Martin says the beauty of preparing a concert of works by someone like Cole or Fitzgerald is exposing the students to how such giants approached their music from the perspective of the African-American folk tradition.
“The members of the JVC — and many are also private students of mine, so I spend a lot of time with them outside of class — are learning that a song is more about the conversation than the melody,” she says, noting how she has her charges listen to how Cole or Fitzgerald articulates a phrase, emphasizing a particular word or even just a syllable.
“They use these musical models to interpret their own expression, and this is how they’re able to build their repertoire,” she says.
The Jazz Vocal Collective was founded about a decade ago by Anthony D.J. Branker, former head of the jazz studies program at Princeton, with the goal to engage the history of jazz as well as its modern forms and approaches. Robinson-Martin has been the group’s director since 2013.
She says she and Branker both attended Columbia Teacher’s College at the same time and got to know each other from taking various classes together.
“He was talking about this new ensemble, saying ‘I’m just starting to bring singers in and I want to bring you in as a coach,’” Robinson-Martin says. “I came in maybe once a year, and we would team teach together, which we did until he was no longer at the university. The JVC has certainly evolved, but the original concept was Anthony Branker’s.”
Robinson-Martin previously taught in this area at Rider University, Mercer County Community College, and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She also teaches privately.
Internationally recognized as one of the leading pedagogues in gospel and soul voice training, Robinson-Martin has dedicated her career to performing and developing resources for teaching jazz, gospel/Christian, R&B, rock, country, and pop singing styles in an applied/private voice lesson setting.
Based on her graduate research, she created her trademarked “Soul Ingredients,” a teaching methodology for developing a singer’s musical style/interpretation in African-American folk-based music styles. She has traveled nationally and internationally to teach and lecture on the subject.
This methodology shows students how to take their personal experiences, musical influences, and models, and execute the different components in a manner that is personal to the performer’s own personal expression. Basically, it’s the performer telling their story, holding a “conversation” with the audience through the music.
“It’s not just what you say, but how you say it, through the phrasing,” Robinson-Martin says. “This is very different from classical music, where you sing what’s written on the page.”
Robinson-Martin and husband Lindsay Martin, a senior manager with Johnson & Johnson Supply Chain (JJSC), have lived in Lawrence Township for 10 years. The couple has a daughter, Laura-Simone, 13, and son, Lindsay Martin Jr., 9.
Both young people are talented in sports and especially music, and take lessons at Music and Arts in the Mercer Mall. (Proud mom adds that Laura-Simone is a member of the Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey and was chosen be first chair double bass in both the Central N.J. Regional Intermediate Orchestra and N.J. State Intermediate Orchestra.)
By the way, if you want to catch Dr. Trineice sing, mark your calendars for Thursday, June 20, when she will return to the Hopewell Valley Bistro.
For about a year now, Jazz on Broad has presented live jazz every Thursday night for an all-ages audience, as well as a chance for area musicians to sit in. The concerts are the brainchild of pianist Phil Orr, who is Robinson-Martin’s go-to accompanist.
“As soon as I learned about Jazz on Broad, I made sure I was a part of it,” she says. “I especially love it because I can bring my kids.”
In fact, when Robinson-Martin performed a Valentine’s Day show at the Bistro, daughter Laura-Simone sat in with her on bass, and she believes son Lindsay Jr. will be joining her on guitar in the future.
Born and raised in Oakland, California, Robinson-Martin had a musical childhood centered around the church and the family choir.
“My grandfather, Bishop John the Baptist Robinson, was pastor and district bishop for Triumph the Church and Kingdom of God in Christ; his father was also a pastor,” she says. “My father currently pastors the church my uncle started, and others (in the family) are deacons. As a result my extended family is very much embedded in ministry, and particularly singing together.”
In addition to being a pastor Robinson-Martin’s father is a correctional sergeant at San Quentin State Prison and has worked at the famed penitentiary for some 35 years.
Her mother is retired from a long career with the U.S. Postal Service, where she had been a management executive responsible for one of four information technology/software development centers for U.S.P.S.
“Singing in church was just a part of life, and I never thought of it as ‘a thing’ until I was grown,” Robinson-Martin says. “I started playing congas as part of an African dance troupe when I was in elementary school, and I also played piano. It was my maternal grandfather who introduced me to jazz.”
As early as high school Robinson-Martin was singing as part of a jazz trio — she was already playing piano with the group. She started college at San Jose State University focused on chemical engineering but changed her major after a doing a summer internship at Corning Inc. in New York.
“Employees there heard me sing and began to challenge my decision to major in engineering instead of music,” she says, noting that song stylist Nancy Wilson is probably her main influence among many other fine vocalists.
Robinson-Martin graduated from San Jose State with a bachelor of arts in improvised music studies in 2002.
She then went to Indiana University-Bloomington to earn her master’s degree in jazz studies (2004), and subsequently attended Teacher’s College at Columbia University, earning a master’s degree (2008), then a doctorate of education in music education (2010).
The woman with such deep roots in her faith has also become a big part of a small congregation that meets in a historic location in Trenton. Robinson-Martin sings during celebrations at the Turning Point United Methodist Church, at 15 South Broad Street, and she is also the creative arts director of the church’s music ministry.
“I took the job at Turning Point because it was a small church, and I loved the people, so much so that I joined with my family,” Robinson-Martin says. “Now it’s a part of my life. The pastor (Rupert A. Hall, Jr.) just loves music.”
“It aligned with who I was and where I was,” she adds. “That’s how I ended up there, and there I remain.”
The very busy Robinson-Martin is usually juggling several projects at once, and one effort has just been wrapped up: her first solo recording, “My Shining Hour,” to be released later this spring. The 14-song album includes Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” Cole’s mysterious “Nature Boy,” a reinterpretation of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” and many more pieces that are personally meaningful to her.
“I’m always helping other people with their (music and recordings) so this is my chance; that’s why the project is titled ‘My Shining Hour,’” she says. “The songs represent part of my journey or part of the ministering I do.”
“I still have the sensitivity and responsibility to inspire people to be their best selves and awaken their senses in the context of life and love,” she continues. “You don’t have to do this in church. You can use jazz to do this as well. That’s where I am now as an artist and a human being.”
Princeton University’s Jazz Vocal Collective, Taplin Auditorium, Fine Hall, Princeton University. Monday, April 15, 7:30 p.m. Free. No ticket required. 609-258-4241 or music.princeton.edu/events/jazz-vocal-collective-0.
Trineice Robinson-Martin, Jazz on Broad, Hopewell Valley Bistro and Inn, 15 East Broad Street, Hopewell. Thursday, June 20, 6 to 9 p.m. $15; $5 age 22 and younger. 609-466-9889 or www.jazzonbroad.com.
Trineice Robinson-Martin on the web: www.drtrineice.com.