Vinx is a hypnotic one-man band. A bookish-looking but genial figure with black clothes, thick-framed glasses, and an orange head scarf, he takes the stage with an African drum hanging from a cord slung over his shoulder. There may be a couple of other musicians, as there were when I saw Vinx at the Detroit Institute of Arts not long ago, but they sit silently for a good part of the show, and sometimes even Vinx’s drum falls silent and he sings alone.
Is Vinx’s music jazz? Folk music? Soul or R&B? World music? It’s simple yet unclassifiable, and that should let you know something’s up. The nearest comparison for his singing would be Stevie Wonder’s, free in rhythm, a bit meditative, full of melismas that bubble over into passages of vocalese. Jazz audiences feel at home with Vinx’s talent for improvisation and for defining the basic structure of a piece from scratch. But for his stripped-down investigation of the essences of African American music, the folk stage of the Ark is a good place.
Just as a white singer-songwriter might reduce rock or country or classic pop to the dimensions of vocals and guitar, so Vinx suggests many kinds of African American music with his voice and drum. He does an unforgettable version of “My Funny Valentine” with the drum laying down a skittery layer underneath his elaborated version of the song’s already jazzy melody. He sometimes delves into Brazilian and Caribbean flavors that commended his music to Sting, one of his longtime backers. Most of his songs are original and romantic, with a sort of contemplative lyricism that tends to hook those who’ve heard it once.
As so often with things that are simple but distinctive, a notable life story underlies Vinx’s music. Growing up in a suburb of Kansas City, he was badly burned in a fire started by white terrorists who burned down his family’s house. He recovered to make the second-longest triple jump in the world in 1979, which qualified him for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow before the United States withdrew. After that he turned to music. His father was murdered in a 1989 robbery in Detroit.
African American music tends toward attention-grabbing innovation, and musicians who do Vinx’s kind of quiet distillation are rare. One of the few others is Taj Mahal, who was also among Vinx’s early inspirations. Vinx has been more or less continuously creative since coming on the scene in the late 1980s, and he comes to the Ark on Thursday, February 26, with his recent, creatively overflowing CD, 50 Memoirs of a Hip Ole’ Black Man.