A smooth vocalist whose intonation could be used to test automatic tuning devices, James Robinson is associated with some of the lighter sounds of the '80s and '90s, ranging from fusion jazz to soul music. Nonetheless, the sound of his singing is more reminiscent of the type of big-voiced but not particularly funky vocalists Duke Ellington used to feature with his bands. Retrospectively, the Robinson projects that have garnered the most lingering attention are the collaborations with pianist Lonnie Liston Smith. A veteran of the intense small free jazz groups of tenor saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Gato Barbieri, Liston Smith struck out on his own in the mid-'70s and began developing a style of music best described by one of the more popular album titles under his name, Cosmic Funk.
Robinson was not along for the ride on that record; he came along on a pair of somewhat later Liston Smith recordings from 1979 and 1980, including the perhaps inaccurate Love Is the Answer project, adding to the instrumental mix with spots of guitar and bass playing as well as vocalizing. The entire direction Liston Smith was going in quickly lost favor with the listening public as the '80s progressed -- if that word can be used in description of the somewhat conservative musical events of that decade. But the acid jazz and hip hop generations rediscovered these recordings a couple of decades later, and with them the talents of Robinson as both a vocalist and vocal arranger. He is also heard on a series of largely forgotten, uneven recordings by bandleader and composer Bob Baldwin, some of which also feature the Liston Smith keyboard disciple Anaje Allan Gumbs.