BLACK TOP, WILLIAM PARKER & HAMID DRAKE,CLEVELAND WATKISS, PHILIP ACHILLE IN CONVERSATION WITH STEWART SMITH. Sunday 28th August 2016.
As part of their two-day OTO residency with Black Top, Hamid Drake and William Parker joined writer and researcher Stewart Smith in conversation. Black Top, with its core duo of multi-instrumentalist Orphy Robinson and pianist Pat Thomas, is a shape-shifting unit dedicated to exploring the intersection between live instruments and lo-fi technology. Their virtuoso, freely improvised performances combine twisted loops, samples and dub-effects, which draw on their Afro-Caribbean roots as well as experimental free-jazz. Before the playing in a sextet alongside harmonica player Phillip Achille, vocalist Cleveland Watkiss and powerhouse rhythm section Drake & Parker, the whole lot of them chat making records with Don Cherry, discuss roots and reggae and go deep on the dub scene in Hackney.
JAZZWISE Magazine Chart July 2014
European Media Chart July 2014
“I think it’s a love of good music, and also I was very lucky like I said growing up in a house where you could hear Charlie Pride, Handel, Beethoven, Lee Perry and Little Richard all at the same time. You go into one part of the room and you can hear all of this…Caribbean culture is more eclectic. When I’m in Antigua I can hear Art Tatum, Sonny Rollins, along with Soca; it’s much more varied than so-called British radio, which is very static.” Pat Thomas
Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw
There is a book written by Russell Conwell entitled ‘Acres of Diamonds’ which relays the story of a farmer who, frustrated with his lot decided to sell his farm and set off in search of his fortune mining for diamonds along with hundreds of other diamond speculators. He died penniless, never having struck lucky. The ironic twist to the story is that soon after the new owner had purchased the farm, a worker discovered an object in the field, which transpired to be a diamond in the rough. On further excavation ‘acres of diamonds’ were unearthed. Astonishingly, the farmer who initially sold the farm, had in fact owned ‘free and clear’ the largest diamond mine in the entire continent!
The reason for this paraphrased story is because for the past thirty years the UK jazz and classical world have had within their midst, hidden in plain sight, the most brilliant, burnished and flawless musical diamond these shores have ever produced. Pat Thomas is his name, a virtuoso pianist and electronics guru par excellence. Although strangely STILL a relatively unknown entity in his homeland Pat is massively revered and highly respected throughout Europe, especially in Germany, Italy, France, Turkey, Hungary and Scandinavia. Michael ‘The Dood’ Edwards managed to grab some quality time with Mr Thomas at The House of St. Barnabas, prior to him taking to the stage alongside a few of his peers, performing under the moniker, London Arts Collective at Sun Ra 100, as the Sun God would have celebrated his one hundredth Earth-year this year.
The Dood: Mr Pat Thomas, it’s a pleasure to link up with you at long last! What are you first memories of music?
Pat Thomas: There was always music in the house. There’s no sort of first memories, I suppose the first sort of music would have been if you went to a certain place in our room, you’d hear Country and Western, Beethoven and Lee Perry all at the same time.
The Dood: So this was when you were growing up as a young boy?
Pat Thomas: Yes in Oxford. Music was always in the household; my parents were very much into music.
Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw
The Dood: When did you know piano would become your preferred instrument to play?
Pat Thomas: I got interested in the piano when I saw Liberace, which is a bit corny but that’s why I became interested in the piano because I saw this big white thing, this white piano, and I thought, “Oooh! That looks nice!” My mum noticed I was interested and she said, “Would you like to play the piano?” And I said, “Yes!” But I thought all pianos looked like the one Liberace had.
The Dood: How old were you at this time?
Pat Thomas: I would have been about seven, coming up to eight, because I started about eight on the piano.
The Dood: Oscar Peterson was a big inspiration for you during your pre-teenage years. How did that come about?
Pat Thomas: It was just a simple thing of seeing him on TV, seeing a black piano player on the TV playing like that. I was classically trained, but I didn’t know anything about jazz. So it was just a shock to see a black piano player on the TV playing with that versatility, but not playing classical music; so I had to find out what that was. When I was supposed to be practising my Bach, I’d be trying to play Oscar Peterson piano transcriptions and my music teacher found out. But she was alright, she was great! She gave me my first gig; she was very enthusiastic and very supportive.
The Dood: What was her name?
Pat Thomas: Mrs Mary Pryce her name was; she was brilliant!
The Dood: Did she have a ruler to discipline you?
Pat Thomas: Oh! My first teacher was called Mrs Smith, who lived around the corner. She was rough! She was old school and would rap you over the knuckles.
The Dood: As you mentioned, you studied Classical music growing up, what grounding did that give you?
Pat Thomas: It gives you a good grounding in reading. I mean later on you realise that music is not really on the page; but it’s a good way of developing a technique. Whether you’re playing Jazz or Classical, what’s called the Hanon and Czerny manuals, that’s still the best practice manuals, it’s great for anybody learning the piano.
Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw
The Dood: What part did your parents play in your musical development?
Pat Thomas: Oh a big part, they’re from Antigua. It was quite familiar for us watch British steel bands, which they found quite amusing and I didn’t know that much about steel bands. Then they played me some steel bands from Antigua, playing Handel on the steel pan, and it was unbelievable.
The Dood: Really!
Pat Thomas: Antigua steel pan groups are unbelievable – outstanding!
The Dood: I was in Trinidad last year and saw some quality steel pan bands.
Pat Thomas: Well, you know what it’s like with the rivalry, but Antigua has got some unbelievable steel bands.
The Dood: You played your first improvised gig around 1979, were you part of any group at that time?
Pat Thomas: Around 1980 I started playing in a group called Ghosts, with Pete McPhail and Matt Lewis.
The Dood: So how did that connection come about?
Pat Thomas: We were all in Oxford, and you know the English style of coming to a gig and nobody is speaking. So we’d be going to gigs for about six months and sometimes we’ll be the only people in the room. One day I thought I should ask this guy what do you do, and found out he was a drummer, so we started playing. And then we met Pete McPhail, a very good saxophone player, so we started playing in his house. And he put this group together called ‘Ghosts’
The Dood: Where did the name come from?
Pat Thomas: Well, it’s because there is a record by Albert Ayler; the great saxophone player Albert Ayler had a track called ‘Ghosts,’ and we all loved that track so we thought we’d call it that. And it was also to sort of emphasise that area, because he was one of the major players in Free Jazz. So it was like that connection with that sort of music.
The Dood: When did electronics enter your sphere of influence?
Pat Thomas: When I could afford them! (Laughs) I was always interested in electronics, but I managed to afford them in about seventy-eight/seventy-nine, in and round the early eighties.
Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw
The Dood: How old were you at that time?
Pat Thomas: About twenty. I mean I always wanted to get into it, it just looked great, all of these massive things. I used to envy guitarists and the fact that they were able to slide, because on the piano you’re just stuck with this note goes here and so on. However, a guitarist could slide between notes and all this. And with a synthesiser I noticed that you could slide, so I wanted to able do that, so that’s why I was interested in it in the beginning.
The Dood: Can you expand more on the three electro-acoustic compositions you wrote having been awarded an Arts Council jazz bursary in 1988, which you performed at the ‘Crawley Outside-In’ Festival’ of new music in 1989?
Pat Thomas: It’s really funny; I just decided that I wanted to do some pieces, because there was this whole big Jazz boom, with all these Big Bands doing Jazz hits. So I just thought I’d like to do something slightly different. So we didn’t have any saxophone in it, no bass; I had two drummers.
The Dood: That was a conscious decision?
Pat Thomas: Yes that was a conscious decision to try something different. We were probably the first electronic Big Band to have a turntablist in it.
The Dood: What was his name?
Pat Thomas: Neil Palmer. I met him as I used to play in a band called the ‘Mayhem Quartet’ with a guy called Tim Hill and Mike Cooper, the great Mike Cooper, who was a great blues guitarist as well a free improviser, and Neil Palmer and myself. So when I was putting this band together i was trying to find people from different electronic backgrounds. So Phil Durrant, an excellent violinist and electronics specialist; Marcia Matthaus, a great cellist and who also used electronics. I was working stuff with the computer, and it was back in the day, not like now when you don’t have to do programming, back then I had to do programming. I used to ‘Fourth’ and ‘BBC Basic’. So I programmed everything with ‘BBC Basic’ myself.
Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw
The Dood: That’s time-consuming!
Pat Thomas: It’s a lot of work! (Laughs) So I had to programme everything myself and I decided to use Phil Minton, who is a fantastic vocalist. I did a piece for him and also for great trumpet player called Jon Corbett. I wanted to expand to see if I could push them, so I had all this stuff on the computer, a lot of electronics sounds…I’ve used it to create a sort of background which the musicians can use to develop. So I had the idea, and the other idea was to do a piece with two drummers and a drum machine – a drum machine program. So I had all the stuff written out on a drum machine and then performed by Jeff Sewell, who is excellent on drum machines and stuff and then two percussionists, Roger Turner and Matt Lewis… I wanted to have that interaction between natural drums and electronic drums. So I was always looking for fresh ideas, because about that time it was the Big Band eighties jazz revival, so i thought I’d thought we need to something different.
The Dood: How and why did the formation of the ‘Scatter Quartet’ you formed with Phil Minton, Roger Turner and Dave Tucker in 1990 to come about?
Pat Thomas: Improvisers are great optimists! To show you how optimistic I was, the conception that this was a Rock band, of course we didn’t play any tunes, there was no bass, and there was no sort of set rhythm. The idea was that this was a rock band, because Dave played on the four. What I liked about Dave Tucker is that he’s a great guitarist but he could get all this intensity without having to be super loud; and that’s pretty hard. And with Phil Minton and Roger (Turner) who’s also got this great dynamism. So I wanted to real kind of intensity, but also at low-level, so it was a bit contradictory, because it was supposed to be a Rock band, but sometimes we played very quietly. (Laughs)
The Dood: Power and subtlety.
Pat Thomas: Yeah, power and strategy.
The Dood: You’ve played with a plethora of fellow musicians and composers throughout the years from all genres of music, be it Classical, Reggae, Jazz, Avant-garde or Electro. Does it all boil down to the love of good music, stretching your parameters, or the music you are hearing in your head at any given time?
Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw
Pat Thomas: I think it’s a love of good music, and also I was very lucky like I said growing up in a house where you could hear Charlie Pride, Handel, Beethoven, Lee Perry and Little Richard all at the same time. You go into one part of the room and you can hear all of this…Caribbean culture is more eclectic. When I’m in Antigua I can hear Art Tatum, Sonny Rollins, along with Soca; it’s much more varied than so-called British radio, which is very static. Also somebody may just ask you. Like I play in this group/band and I really enjoy it, with Alexis Taylor, John Coxon and originally Charles Hayward. I like to play in all sorts of different things, but I think what encouraged me to do that is that eclecticism, that sort of Catholicism in Caribbean families at that time.
The Dood: Throughout your career the word improvisation, improvised or improviser crop up. Are you conscious of wanting to stay ahead of any quote, “trend,” of not being pigeonholed or formatted i.e. always keeping people guessing?
Pat Thomas: I was probably trying to keep myself guessing! I like to keep it interesting for myself as well; I like to work in as many different contexts as possible, I like that I like the idea… And that’s the beauty of improvisation; because whoever you play with they come with their cultural background, their different concepts. Sometimes they may have a completely different way of thinking about music from you, and I think it’s great they can be those elements together. I like this idea of working in different contexts.
The Dood: You’ve played numerous festivals, the majority of which have been in and around Europe i.e. Germany, Italy, Hungary; your popularity seems to be much more heightened there than in the UK. Why do you think that is?
Pat Thomas: I think because there’s just more money the (Laughs raucously) There’s just more flexibility. I think it’s to do with radio. In the UK you’ve only really got one Jazz radio programme – Jazz on three is about 11pm to 1.00am, so you’ve really got to be a diehard straightaway. I mean when I was growing up listening to Jazz I’d had to listen to Radio Two, which I never thought that I’d have to listen to. Growing up as a teenager you don’t think you’re going to go and listen to Radio Two when you’re about eighteen! But I had to listen to Radio Two in order to get just a snippet of Jazz; all the jazz programs where after 10 o’clock and you didn’t get mainstream TV.
So in Europe there’s more access to it, you’ve got maybe four or five programs a day of Jazz on French Radio and this is just an it covers all the areas. Germany again is very well covered, so even if you’re working in a so-called minority area, there’s more space for it. Jazz on Three do a great job, but they’ve got to try and cover all contemporary music in an hour and a half. We’re playing in Austria in a couple of weeks in a little town called Nicklesdorf; this is the biggest event in the country every year, and it’s packed! And just down the road in Vienna you’ve got Porgy and Bess, you got all these major Jazz clubs. It’s just that they’re more open to it here. We’ve got the baggage of being the centre of Pop music. The way the radio is in England, it’s much more divisive – Radio One only plays music for twelve to sixteen year olds, so once you get over a certain age there doesn’t seem to be this crossing over.
Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw
The Dood: Tell us about your first introduction to fellow musician and long-term friend Steve Williamson?
Pat Thomas: Funnily enough me and Steve where in a group in 1985, a long time ago now I suppose, run by Joe Gallivan, the great Joe Gallivan. He worked with the Gil Evans Orchestra. But as for Steve I only saw him a couple of times and said hello and stuff, and then I didn’t seem for years. His career took off about that time in ’85/’86, I think he started doing all these things and the next time I saw him was probably in Smith’s on the front cover of Vogue or something!(Chuckles) Even in that short time you can tell he was one to watch. And Joe Gallivan he was very perceptive. I used to ask him “What did he see in this young player?” And he said, “This guy’s the future!” So he has heard enough of Steve to realise he was going to go and do something. And of course he did, he did go on to make it.
I didn’t see him again until Orphy (Robinson) put this festival together in 2007. It was this thing in Hackney, but unfortunately it was on or about the same time as 7/07, so it was quite a heavy day, but everybody turned up. He (Orphy) had invited everybody down to the town hall, and we did a duo me and Steve and we talked about doing some more. So yeah, Steve comes and goes.
The Dood: Putting bias to one side, where would place him in the pantheon of Jazz saxophonist?
Pat Thomas: He’s very high obviously! I mean when he was in that band, he must have been about twenty-one or twenty-two – In that Big Band, there was Evan Parker, there was Paul Donald, there was Elton Dean; already pretty much heavyweights, and then Steve, who must have been in his early twenties. So when he was playing in that band there was a heavy line-up of saxophone players.
The Dood: Staying with fellow musicians and long-term friends, how and when was the musical relationship between yourself and marimba/vibes player extraordinaire Orphy Robinson forged?
Pat Thomas: In 1997 when we both got asked to do this Butch Morris Orchestra. It was the London version, London skyscrapers. Steve Beresford was the MD any he put together this band. I mean Steve’s great, he’s been a great supporter of what I do. I remember when he gave us the line-up of the people in it, and I was looking through it and ticking the boxes. Phil Durrant I knew, Evan Parker, Roland (Sutherland) and then I saw Orphy Robinson and I thought isn’t that guy a Jazz vibes player.
Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw
So I rang up Steve and I said, “Are you sure this Orphy Robinson guy is doing a gig?” And he said, “Oh yeah is really open for it!” He didn’t get a chance to play much mind to be honest with you because Butch was quite strict on his ideas on what to do. So every time Orphy wanted to get going, he stopped him. So we were hanging out and stuff and then he had a group called “Nubian Vibes” and he asked me to do that. And then we’ve worked together in all these other groups should, so as I said we’ve been working together since ’97.
The Dood: More recently you have both come together in a musical capacity in the guise of ‘Black Top’. Again that word improvisation crops up, as well as innovation. Can you confirm that the name is actually derived from the miss-hearing of the word laptop?
Pat Thomas: I had an old blacktop right, it’s really funny! So I had an old blacktop, and I always like the rhyming slang “blacktop-laptop.” So I sort of thought that would be a nice name, ‘Black Top;’ It was sort of a bit jokey. Ironically at the time – not that we’re not conscious of our race – me and Orphy weren’t really thinking we’re going to call this Black Top as in “Blacks On Top!” We just didn’t want a name that would say that we’re Jazz band or we’re a Free improvising band or we’re a Funk band.
That name gave us the opportunity to be able to do whatever we like, to cover all the bases without anybody judging us. We’re always making jokes that if all we had to do was put the name blacking in it, we would’ve done it ages ago – I would have called a band ‘Black Soil,’ ‘Black Pyjamas’. (Laughs deeply) The idea was that we wanted it to be a completely open ended group, totally free, but we wanted to cover all these bases at the same time.
The Dood: As I understand it the nucleus of the band is yourself and Orphy Robinson, with guest musicians contributing to each album, such as Steve Williamson and HKB FiNN. Do you see it as a long-term project, all something that once you exhaust all the possibilities that you will move on from?
Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw
Pat Thomas: It’s a long-term project; it’s always going to be fresh because you can say that every version is a new edition. For example the way we play with Evan (Parker) is completely different from the way we play with Steve (Williamson). He’s got another world and it’s great to play with different people and play in these different sound worlds. For us it’s nice because it can always be fresh, because it’s not just me and Orphy playing all the time. Different people give it different character every time, that’s what we’ve noticed. So we’ve got lots of stuff in the can and slowly slowly we’ll release stuff.
The Dood: Moving on to your unique piano style, was your technique honed over time or inspired by anyone in particular?
Pat Thomas: A big influence on me would have been Cecil Taylor; Muhal Richard Abrams, another great piano player I was very interested in. He was one of the founders of the AACM; he was the guardian, the main man, who sort of helped put the whole thing together. And then obviously you’ve got Bud Powell. I have a very formal training, and very good teachers who taught you about velocity. It was a combination of things over time and trying to find ways… You see with the piano, unlike the saxophone, you’re stuck with this diatonic scale; you have to try and find ways of making it sound like it’s not like a diatonic instrument.
There are various different ways like playing inside the piano, playing very fast intervalically i.e. on a piano if I played middle C and then in F sharp, right at the top of the piano that represents an interval of two and a half octaves. I used to listen to someone like Eric Dolphy, he played with Coltrane, and when he started doing this style they used to say it was anti-Jazz, because he was playing so fast. (Pat laughs incredulously) This is quite funny, because now they all say to me, “Why can’t you play like Eric Dolphy?”, or “Why don’t you play like John Coltrane?” They hated what Coltrane was doing some of these critics, they said it was anti-Jazz!
The Dood: Maintaining the link with all three, last year you appeared at Nexus – One World Music presented by the Jazz Warriors International at St Georges Church, London. How it was for you? (i.e. another chance to improvise) and what do you think of the concept Orphy and Cleveland Watkiss have initiated?
Pat Thomas: It’s a great concept! It’s really great the way they get all these people, so it’s always fresh, and you’ll obviously know more because you seen more of the concerts than me. Every concert is different. Sometimes when I don’t see it I think, “Oh! It would have been great to have seen that!” I saw some of your clips with Django Bates and Nicky Yeoh and Cleveland (Watkiss) and stuff like that. Then you’ve got Tori (Handsley) and Shabaka (Hutchings), there’s some great stuff going on! I think It’s a good time for music, because back in the eighties and nineties, it was very much more fractional.
What were called the ‘Jazzers’ were in that section, the ‘Improvisers’ were in this section, the ‘Rockers’ where on this side; everybody is much more mixed now. Recently I did a gig with Jason Pierce from ‘Spiritualised’ and American drummer called Kid Millions. Now back in the eighties the whole idea of working with the Rock band in improvised context was strange – people would mention Thurston Moore. There’s a lot more mixing between different groups nowadays, more than back in the eighties, when it was much more factionalised.
The Dood: What advice would you give for young aspiring pianists or musicians in general?
Pat Thomas: They’ve got to practice – practice, practice, practice. I would say it’s better to see maybe thirty or forty gigs a year and maybe do two gigs a year. I know people are trying to make a living and that, but I think it’s better to check out gigs first, check out what people are doing; and then that helps you to venture on and form an idea of what’s going on. I think what happened for a lot of young players now is that their sort of forced into playing and playing, so they don’t get to see anything. When I first started playing I used to see loads of gigs; the actual gigs I played myself I could count on my hand. When I first started playing I saw Sun Ra, I saw everybody in the eighties.
Practice as much as possible, and listen to as many things as possible. Even though I want people to think the Internet is a great thing, I think it is a disadvantage because sometimes you don’t have that effort of going to see someone. You know when you used to go into record shops and ask the person to order you a record, or you’d go all over London just order one track! Now they just ‘Google it.’ And also they miss out, because a lot of things aren’t documented, a lot of special music is not documented, so I think it’s harder for them.
Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw
The Dood: Tonight you play a tribute to the one and only Sun Ra at the Church of St Barnabas, London, alongside your peers Orphy Robinson, Rowland Sutherland and Neil Charles, curated by your good friend Paul Bradshaw. Apart from these three, have you worked with any of the band members before?
Pat Thomas: Yes Maurizio. We were involved in a project by the composer Steve Blake, The Cholmondeleys.’ The Cholmondeleys was a great dance group featuring Lea Anderson; she was a fantastic choreographer. But me and Maurizio (Ravalico, Percussion) were in this project and yeah it was great! I’ve worked with him before so it’s fantastic to see him again.
The Dood: Neil Charles (Double Bass)?
Pat Thomas: Neil’s definitely happening! He’s a good young player. He did a ‘Black Top’ gig alongside Cleveland (Watkiss) with us. Roland (Sutherland) I’ve known long time. The first time I played with Roland was in a group called ‘R2 Jazz’n’Beats,’ with Ray Carless and Rowland… It was the usual London thing for an outsider, because I was ‘depping’ (deputising), so the keyboard player was supposed to give me the parts, and of course he didn’t give me the parts. So Mr Sutherland had to run through all the parts in the car that was quite amusing! (Chuckles) And of course, Orphy and Rowland go way back to the Blue Note, and Nubian Vibes would have been the first time I met Rowland.
He really is an outstanding musician. He’s one of the most underrated musicians in Europe I would say. He’s one of the top in Europe and probably the world. He’s acknowledged as a top musician, but I think he’ still underrated I would say, because he’s really flexible, he’s an excellent Classical player. Very few musicians are excellent Classical musicians and excellent improvisers. And he’s a fantastic arranger and great composer in his own right. He should be doing more of his own products, so it’s good that he’s doing these things now; I’m glad to see it. We like to wind him up because he’s Rowland, but he’s a great musician. I think he’s definitely one of the most underrated musicians in the world.
The Dood: I second that emotion. Are you a fan of Sun Ra’s music and when were you contacted to add your particular musical flavour to this event?
Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw
Pat Thomas: Of course! In ’97 Rowland put this London Arts Collective together, it was a great band. It was for La Scala and it was sold out. It was a similar sort of project and it was Rhodri Davis, a fantastic harpist, who put it together with John Edwards and a great saxophone player called Geoff Hawkins, who was one of my mentors, Orphy and myself. And we did all this stuff and it was sold out. Sun Ra has been a major influence on me from the first time I heard his records, and of course again a phenomenal musician. The electronics and the things he was doing, I spent like years trying to work out what he was doing – I mean literally years! You didn’t have You Tube, so you had to listen and listen to the record and try and work out what he was doing. And I had worked out what he was doing, so when I did see him I was glad that I got it right. I’d worked out that the only way that he could be doing some of the things he was doing was by playing with the back of his hands.
Because it was not possible he could be playing just normal, the sounds he was making I thought that he has to be playing with the back of his hands. Then when I saw him I noticed that’s what he was doing, but: time to write this stuff out. That’s what I’m saying about kids now; they don’t get the benefit… I was very lucky to see him a number of times, one time I’ll never forget because it was on my birthday and the pain is synthesised solo. I’m still yet to hear anybody top this solo Sun Rd on that night. He was definitely a major influence on me. And also just the idea of covering all bases; he could play Swing with Fletcher Henderson to Be-bop – everything! And the musicians he got were all excellent musicians. He had this view that everything’s there, everything’s to be played – very disciplined. And Francesco Maurao, who did the first gig and played with Sun Ra, also said he was very disciplined. He left because he wasn’t making any money. At that time they were not making any money.
Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw
One day Sun Ra made stew; called a ‘Moon Stew’ – a bunch of vegetables put in a put, we fed them for a week because they were starving. That was a heavy commune thing, these guys dedicated their lives to playing this guys music. This guy saw himself as having a mission, a very spiritual mission to make his music…Also to have that dedication and no funding. When you think about what the classical musicians and classical composers would get, this guy had to try and make a living as a black creative artist with no real funding, I mean it was amazing the things he achieved! And he kept his Big Band together for over thirty years – Incredible! People don’t understand, he kept a Big Band playing what’s called avant-garde music for over thirty years! He passed away in the nineties. And there’s a legacy, Marshall Allen who’s now eighty-five still keeping the band going, with a lot of the original members. That’s amazing! So yeah, he is a major figure.
The Dood: What’s next on the horizon for Pat Thomas, future plans etc?
Pat Thomas: Sleep! My immediate plans after this gig are getting some sleep. Then ‘Black Top’ is doing a little launch at Cafe Oto this thursday; then next week I’m doing a gig at Cafe Oto again with ‘Founder Effect’ which is John Coxon, Alan Wilkinson and Steve Noble, and then we go and play the Nicklesdorf Festival in Austria – It’s called ‘A Confrontation’. Then I’m in Europe is again in August, I’m playing in Norway and playing in Germany; so it’s quite a busy week and summer.
The Dood: I understand there are more ‘Black Top’ releases to come?
Pat Thomas: There will be. We’ll talk to the label (Babel) as to when the next one is going to be. It’s going to be very different from the first one; VERY different from the first one! It will be a live recording. We’re doing the London Jazz Festival on the 19th and 20th of November at Cafe Oto where we have a residency. We’ve got lots of guests yet to be announced, so that should be fun.
Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw
The Dood: Thank you for your time and have a great show. I’m looking forward to it within this beautiful space!
Pat Thomas: Cheers, it is, it is, it’s very posh!
Michael J Edwards
Black Top #1 (2014) Pat Thomas & Orphy Robinson feat Steve Williamson
Interview & Improvised Performance – 12th Oct 2009:
On the Sofa #4 with Orphy Robinson
Discussions,ideas and rants from The Babel Label, in London. Music and more on www.babellabel.co.uk @babellabel. Like Babel Label on Facebook.
On the Sofa with Orphy Robinson
“For me a “Nightingale did not sing in Berkeley Square” but possibly in somewhere more relevant to me like Gillett Square…”
With the release of Black Top #1 14 July 2014 I thought it was time to get Orphy on the sofa to get his views on football, cricket and the long orange thing he’s waving around in a photograph in his Wikipedia entry. If you don’t believe me take a look for yourself. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orphy_Robinson
Orphy Robinson was born in London he has been a major figure in UK and international jazz since the 1980s, releasing two critically acclaimed solo albums on the Blue Note label and playing with a host of major artists including Don Cherry, David Murray, Henry Threadgill, Courtney Pine, Jazz Warriors and Andy Shepherd. His approach is eclectic as it crosses a variety of musical forms including jazz, free jazz, free improvisation, jazz fusion, and funk music. Black Top #1 his latest album on Babel is a collaboration with the pianist Pat Thomas and saxophonist Steve Williamson Available here Together they form a sound shape-shifting unit exploring the intersection between live instruments and lo-fi technology.
KATAN500: Favourite colour
KATAN500: Jazz is in 150 characters.
ORPHY: “Jas” its original name was derived from the Bordellos. However it became a name given to the music described by Duke Ellington as Negro folk music. It’s a catch all title for many different sounds, not all good…
KATAN500: That’s 173 characters but since it’s you I’ll let you off. Football or cricket
KATAN500: Do you remember the Norman Tebbit test
KATAN500: I guess you’re going to be tactful… How do you relax?
ORPHY: Roller Skate
KATAN500: I’m assuming that’s roller and not ice à la Torville and Dean… Town or country?
KATAN500: Car or Bike?
KATAN500: Cats or Dogs
ORPHY: Both. Um…no preference.
KATAN500: Tell me something about yourself that most people don’t know…
ORPHY: Ha, No idea. What could that be?
KATAN500: You ready?
KATAN500: So how did you start?
ORPHY: It was the local youth orchestra in Hackney where I learned to play Trumpet, drums and Tuned percussion. Ultimately settling on Tuned percussion because I found playing it fun and interesting.
KATAN500: Are you from a musical family?
ORPHY: My parents and family listened to music from Jamaica primarily, but also introduced me to a wide selection of music from around the world. It’s probably why I’ve always been open minded and eclectic. My Father was friends with a famous Jamaican trombone player named Don Drummond.
KATAN500: Was there a defining moment when you decided to become a musician?
ORPHY: Well, there was a music competition at Alexandra Palace… I wasn’t a participant…I was watching, but I vowed to come back the next time and win best soloist category, and I did!
KATAN500: Was there a prize…have you still got it?
ORPHY: No idea where that stuff is now. I once went a whole year winning every competition in the country. You can imagine, that would be a lot of trophies… I’m sure I would have thrown out most of that or given them to family through my various moves over the years. It’s enough for me to know that I had that grounding and did well in those early years rather than live in the past carrying around too much nostalgia…
KATAN500: OK. You’ve fessed up to being ‘polygamous’ with your instruments, do you have a fav instrument that you like to spend more time with?
ORPHY: My marimba.
KATAN500: Do you give your instruments names?
KATAN500: Orphy meet Zaboca [my laptop] Zaboca meet Orphy…
KATAN500: Growing up what influences played on you?
ORPHY: Influences… growing up in the UK in Hackney at that time it was Jamaican music, Funk… family and friends were important. I learned to play football and cricket to a good standard.The music I grew up with still appears in my own music at various times. Musicians such as Bobby Hutcherson for the vibraphone, Walt Dickerson and Roy Ayers were influences again for vibes. My own style is eclectic crossing various styles, and I use many different instruments.
KATAN500: Who do you admire (alive)?
ORPHY: Stevland Hardaway Judkins that’s Stevie Wonder to you and me…he’s a prolific song writer and musician…
KATAN500: Your Wikipedia entry says that you were discovered while playing with Courtney Pine and Jazz Warriors. Tell me how you came to be involved with them.
ORPHY: No. I was first “discovered” if that is the word, by the Press in my Brit Funk band days in 1981, my band was called Savanna we had two number One hits in the R & B charts and sold records internationally. I’m still well-known in that particular genre and play in various high profile bands from that genre every year. Funnily, when I went to Japan with Courtney Pine in the 1986 the media wanted to know about Savanna more than any of the music I was playing with Courtney…[KATAN500: did that annoy him?] No why would it? They were interviews with me. I was invited to join The Jazz Warriors in 1985 by Courtney who knew about me from funk session work and the Pop charts. I had a lot of fun in the Warriors and grew considerably as a musician during that period.
KATAN500: Is “Jazz” dead?
ORPHY: “Jazz” is just a word for marketing purposes. However the music continues to grow and change…I’ve no idea what is commonly understood by the word as it means all sorts of things to all kinds of people. If there was a commonality in the meaning… there wouldn’t be different interpretations of the word. I prefer improvised music, Free, Avant-garde… I don’t follow the jazz media, or play in those particular styles that followers of “jazz” expect and relate to. To me music will always grow and change as we all know, it’s if the audience comes along with those changes, and the new music catches the imagination of the musicians, which dictate if those shifts are successful or not in a commercial sense.
KATAN500: “Black British Jazz” What’s that? A tradition? The colour of the musician? Routes?
ORPHY: “Black Jazz”? I suppose that could be music played by musicians who are black and might have different emphasis either in rhythmic, melodic or harmonic senses. History or tradition are obviously important aspects of the music called “Jazz” that some musicians hold on to for different reasons. Fortunately that’s not the same for all of us. I prefer to move forward with a healthy respect for the past but not to linger there. Creating something from my own experiences appeals to me more. I understand that some musicians and critics prefer to stay rooted in particular periods of the music’s development in the last century, and I respect that …even wish them well. I prefer to own and name my own music. For me a “Nightingale did not sing in Berkeley Square” but possibly in somewhere more relevant to me like Gillett Square. If the music you’re playing is called Jazz then that’s what it’s called. I wouldn’t go on stage and announce I’m going to play any particular colour of jazz, in the same way if I was going to play so-called Classical music I wouldn’t give that a colour either.
KATAN500: How do black “jazz musicians” fit into the contemporary UK scene: Do they have the same opportunities?
ORPHY: Musicians who happen to be Black do have a glass ceiling in employment in music education, we tend to be employed in community projects more than anything else. The odd part-time opportunity might come up once in a while in a dedicated music college, but it’s really outside of that area that we are employed. So we mostly work in community based projects, schools… I have been fortunate to have had some success in those areas with students winning big competitions internationally or going on to be successful in the commercial field, as well as being nominated for a top teaching award myself.
KATAN500: Do you think there is a perception that ‘black audiences’ are not interested in Improv / Free/ Avant-garde jazz etc?
ORPHY: If you counted on being able to sustain a career, counting on your core audience to be black in the UK, you would be seriously deluded and very quickly starve! You just have to concentrate on getting audiences to come and listen to you and then they spread the word to their friends from whatever ethnic background they might be. Create honest music and it will find its own audience. As I said previously I don’t promote the music I create as “jazz” so I don’t lose sleep over the words or connotations. Many times people come along to a gig and say to you afterwards that they really enjoyed the music and didn’t really know what to expect, but that they might not know how to describe the music to others! Some of my ex-students come along to gigs all the time and they are mostly the ones who I didn’t teach anything that could be termed “jazz”, I taught them more about opening the door to music appreciation.
KATAN500: Which piece of your work are you particularly proud of and why?
ORPHY: I’m particularly proud of my first ever album on Blue Note Records, When Tomorrow Comes because I was able to tour for a couple of years internationally through its success. I still meet people who are complimentary about the album and tell me what they got from the music. I was lucky to record two albums and two EPs there and had many fantastic opportunities
KATAN500: You’ve said elsewhere that too many cabaret singers shelter under the umbrella of jazz – do you see this as a quality issue? Why do you think new people are not being picked up by promoters – do they operate under the logic that people will only be interested in the familiar…
ORPHY: I would put that down to lazy short-sightedness by promoters who tend to hold back quite a lot of the real talented jazz artists who are struggling to find decent places to play, they do this by going for a kind of faux supper club look and an ever-revolving conveyor belt of yet more Billie Holliday / Ella fitzgerald sounding clones, with Charlie Parker bebop type lines thrown around from an endless line of talented but unimaginative saxophone players… and while we’re at it let’s also pretend it’s the 1950s again. Add to that, the “promoters” that have no balls and what you have is a really uninspiring pool of what I call “demoters” not promoters!
KATAN500: As a young Black musician who were your role models?
ORPHY: Ray Carless and Claude Deppa. Ray is one of the nicest people out there and made the same jump from playing in jazz funk and reggae bands as myself. He’s still inspiring others and has always been hard working promoting his gigs and setting up teaching opportunities in the local community. Claude helped me, gave me records and inspired me to practice at various important times, and had always said at the beginning that I would be a jazz musician one day… finally meeting up at yet another influential moment for me but this time on a Jazz platform with the Warriors in the 80s, after a period when I had taken up saxophone and was studying with various Teachers at the City Lit in Holborn that included the recently departed Kathy Stobart – a beautiful spirit and really encouraging at the time.
KATAN500: Do you think that American jazz musicians today still carry far greater clout than our home grown ones. If we take Coltrane he was American, take Joe Harriott he was from he colonies but British at the same time, therefore rejected by much of the jazz establishment…
ORPHY: Depends where in the world you are, what the promoters in that particular area thinks will sell the best for them, and the audience they have cultivated locally… and of course what they have been exposed to. However, in the Improv/Free/Avant-garde world musicians from Europe are well respected worldwide and the European circuit provides many exciting and interesting festivals, venues and situations etc. On the rejection of Harriot by the Jazz establishment, he was awarded five stars in Downbeat Magazine and could have built a very different career by all accounts had he not had an aversion to aeroplanes or travel per se! There might well have been some in the jazz establishment who didn’t take to his new music but that’s always going to be the case. Maybe some journalists will be scared to admit that they haven’t got a clue what’s going on in the music of a particular musician and that can also depend on personal preference or musical knowledge of harmony etc. Or as someone recently said at a gig when commenting on an album review, if you admit you haven’t got a clue about what’s happening the reader might think ‘then why have you got the job as reviewer? Give it to someone who does know what’s going on’! So the alternative response might be to ignore or denigrate the music/artists in order to save your own rep! He might have a point!
KATAN500: So what’s your take on Joe Harriott?
ORPHY: Joe was of course an inspiration for myself and some of my contemporaries, he was the first to experiment with free form music or a freer type of jazz predating Ornette Coleman’s experiments in the late 1950s. He alongside Michael Garrick and their Indo Jazz fusion albums do some of the very first, if not the first album fusing Jazz and Indian music with that kind of “world music” sensibility. In the 1980s the Jazz Warriors did a memorable tour based on Joe’s music. Before that tour, when touring with Courtney, I also remember him playing to the band a cassette tape with some of Harriott’s music that completely blew my mind at the time because he was someone that I was not aware of before that so hearing about the Jamaican background and the whole Alpha Boys school background in Jamaica resonated with my own background. Whenever I have listened to Steve Williamson on Alto Sax in the past I can make a valid connection between the way that his phrasing might evoke echo’s of Joe’s Style. However Steve’s playing is all about his own extensive harmonic studies with a healthy respect for the past. I was once stopped outside Ronnie Scott’s by a guy who said “Joe Harriott always predicted that a generation was coming up who would put up with no shit, and be good musicians. He would have definitely enjoyed playing music with you guys”.
KATAN500: What was your last tour and who was it with?
ORPHY: Recent touring has been with Nigel Kennedy the classical violinist. I have been working with him for about four years on various tours playing music by Bach, Vivaldi, Ellington, Hendrix and many more… I’ll be recording a new album later this year with him.
KATAN500: How did you get together with Pat Thomas and Steve Williamson?
ORPHY: I met Pat while we were touring with Lawrence Butch Morris and the LMC on the London Skyscraper tour in the late 1990s. We got on well and then and continued working on quite a lot of my own projects and in a lot of different bands ever since. He is a unique individual and player, who’s extremely creative as you can see with the great reputation he has internationally. Steve was a natural partner in our endeavour to play the style of music we call Archiac Nubian Stepdub. Steve is a fantastic and special musician, really inspiring and constantly challenging and taking his music forward. His reputation as you can see is well earned. The rapport between the three of us on the album [Black Top #1] and whenever we perform is always a joy, it’s why the music we create always feels so special.
KATAN500: Tell me about Black Top…
ORPHY: Black Top is a group put together by myself and Pat Thomas with featured guests for each concert or recording, The idea was to create original music through the use of music from the black experience and technology. The name came about through a misunderstanding when Pat went to say he had created something on his “laptop” but said “Black Top” instead. [KATAN500: …there’re probably people out there thinking it was deep and meaningful…]. We tend to adopt a more avant-garde approach to sound, notes and tones looking for inspiration in the Chicago based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians approach to improvised music…
KATAN900: I was wondering if the actual process of making the music is as important as the sound. It’s not just the technical skills – though obviously that is a very important part – it’s the relationships between the musicians, and individual musician’s relationship with their instruments and then the creative relationships within the group…
ORPHY:Yes. Every little part of the music-making process is very important but external things are just as important, like hanging out, eating together, talking, its all a part of the over all composition.
KATAN500: What projects have you got on at the moment? You know I’ve got to ask you about Broken Blossoms…
ORPHY: There’s Jazz Warriors Nexus…and Broken Blossoms. I lead alongside
Cleveland Watkiss the Jazz Warriors International – an organisation that doesn’t only play concerts, but is also involved in event promotions…education. We have a successful monthly event called Nexus – “One World Music”. That we put on at the iconic St Georges Bloomsbury, where we programme musicians who are better known in the Classical and world music areas. We work closely with Newham music hub and a new initiative called the Newham Youth Dub Orchestra taking in students across the borough in early stages of their musical development. I still lead music education projects at the Hackney Empire. I have been there eleven years now. Broken Blossom is one of a number of commissions I have on the go this year, A visually stunning silent movie from early last century written by the infamous D.W. Griffiths of “The Birth of a nation” fame… I’ve put together a quintet consisting of Byron Wallen, Corey Mwamba, Emi Watanabi and Beibei Wang for the project… Other stuff, I’m producing and musically directing some more commercial projects that will be launched next year. Watch this space.
KATAN900: If you weren’t a musician what would you be?
ORPHY: A barrister or teacher…
KATAN500: One more thing Orphy what is that long orange thing that you’re waving around…
ORPHY: What orange thing is that?
KATAN900: Thank you for being a good sofa sport…
JAZZWISE Magazine JULY 2014
WIRE Magazine July Edition 2014
UK VIBE MAGAZINE
“But then you’ve got the other people that I really respect, Bobby Hutcherson obviously is the main one… The fortunate thing for me is being able to meet some of those heroes, you know Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson, Roy Ayres. And with Roy Ayres I had some really good conversations. He could hear the heritage that I had learned from, he could hear that linage as well. And he’s singing in my ear bits of things that I’ve played, and that shocked me!”
Photo: Courtesy of Gary Thomas Kypa
Orphy Robinson’s extensive musical CV/resume stretches over three decades. He is one of the industry’s leading marimba players, vibraphone players, multi-instrumentalist, composers and musical directors. He has written for Theatre, Television, Opera and provided music scores for the 2012 London Olympics and conducted classical orchestras at the Royal Festival Hall and Albert Hall. In more recent times he has been commissioned as musical director for Jalal Nurridin’s one-off Hustlers Convention concert at London’s Jazz Cafe in February 2014 (part of a documentary on Jalal’s life), as well as performing with selected members of the Jazz Warriors international in support of his good friend and spoken word poet Malik under the monika Malik and The OG’s.
Alongside all of this, Orphy, in tandem with vocal maestro Cleveland Watkiss, heads-up Nexus – One World Music presented by Jazz Warriors International aligned with his commitment to his long-term friend Pat Thomas performing in the guise of “Black Top”. With a new Black Top three-track EP recorded live at the Jazz In The Round at the Cockpit Theatre in January 2012 featuring esteemed UK jazz saxophonist Steve Williamson, the marimba maestro Mr Robinson took time out from his hectic schedule to update Michael ‘The Dood’ Edwards prior to another of Jazz Warriors international’s Nexus – One World presentations at St George’s Church, London.
Photo: Courtesy of Gary Thomas Kypa
The Dood: Orphy Robinson, it’s great to touch base again. I believe it was my fellow vibster Susy Marriot who sat down with you back in the mid-nineties on behalf of ukvibe, so I believe we’re more than due an update. Back then you were quote: “…to be found composing soundtracks for the BBC or improvising with Indian musicians at London’s prime centre of classical music, as well as playing the vibes for your own brand of funk informed jazz.”
Much has happened in the interim, you’ve done a lot more writing, composing, conducting and instigating, initiating and inspiring. You played an integral part in arranging Jalal’s Hustlers Convention gig/forth-coming documentary, along with the Black Top project and Nexus – One World Music coming to the fore – not to mention your work on Paul Bradshaw’s “Sacred Spaces, Sacred Places” initiative, the name Orphy Robinson is firmly back in the limelight. How do you find time to assimilate all that you do?
Orphy Robinson: That’s a good question. The phone has been on my ear and I’ve been doing e-mails and all that from about eight-thirty this morning! And then I said, “Arrrgh!!!” because I’ve got to rush off and do a couple of meetings and set up and then come back. So I’m constantly doing stuff.
Photo: Courtesy of Gary Thomas Kypa
The Dood: You’re a multi-instrumentalists and a multi-tasker?!
Orphy Robinson: (Laughs) There’s a lot of ‘multi’ going on. So how do I find the time? I suppose you try to make the best of the time that you have; so I will do all the things that everybody else does, you know I eat, I drink. I hardly do any keep-fit or sports or anything like that anymore, which is embarrassing because I used to be very fit. I used to roller-skate quite a bit as well; I’m quite a roller-skater… so even that’s on the back-burner now.
I’ve just been fortunate to find interesting projects to be involved in. Whether it’s doing more improvised free stuff, or the straight kind of Jazz stuff, or contemporary classical, or like next week when myself and Cleveland (Watkiss) go off on tour with Nigel Kennedy doing Bach. So I’m doing things right across the board, but I’ve always been one of those inquisitive people who are just into music per se. I’m just into music – I love music as the OJay’s said. (Smiles)
The Dood: You’re primarily known for playing the vibraphone and the marimba, keyboards and a bit of saxophone. Which came first?
Orphy Robinson: Well the vibraphone, in fact the xylophone was before that. So I learned on xylophone.
The Dood: So how old were you?
Orphy Robinson: Thirteen I think; something like that. So that’s when that sort of started. I dabbled in other things before but the proper education starts around thirteen. And then I was in the local Hackney Islington Youth Band and a youth orchestra sort of thing. So I learnt heaps. By about the age of eighteen my technique was a lot better than it is now on most instruments… I just learned a lot, I was drumming, I played trumpet etc.
Photo: Courtesy of Gary Thomas Kypa
The Dood: Where did you study music?
Orphy Robinson: Hackney Islington Youth Orchestra. And then outside of that I went off and did other things. I was playing alto sax in the Brian Booth Jazz Orchestra and various things, so I was getting an education in different places.
The Dood: Did you grow up in a musical household?
Orphy Robinson: Only from the point of view of the radiogram in the corner.
The Dood: Watching your parents Blues dancing?
Orphy Robinson: Yeah! That was it! Dancing at baptisms, and obviously the nightlife things and stuff like that; so the usual sort of things.
The Dood: But no other family members sang or played instruments?
Orphy Robinson: No I was the first one. Now there are nephews and nieces and cousins and things that sing and do various things; and they’re really cool. But I was the first one to take a step to learn an instrument.
The Dood: Who are some of your musical influences?
Orphy Robinson: Obviously my background was playing a lot of the funk stuff. I came up in the Brit-Funk time and all that. I had my own band, Savanna, we were lucky to have hits… And I played on Imagination’s second ever hit, “In and Out of Love” which got to number two. I played the vibe solo on the record. So I did those sorts of things, but I also played with Beggar and Co., the Light Of The World guys and Central Line – you know I played in all these bands. It’s a love of mine as well obviously, all of that music. But I grew up to the Earth, Wind and Fire’s and the Brass Construction’s and Slave and in particular with Steve Arrington. Obviously Stevie Wonder – When the Savanna band disbanded I took time out to just study composition and Stevie was a person that I really got into. So that’s a big big thing for me, Stevie. And then Roy Ayers obviously because of the instrument and that pulled me towards playing the vibraphone. Then you also look at the tree of the Milt Jackson’s, Lionel Hampton’s, Bobby Hutcherson’s and all that.
There were a lot of very good players such as Red Norvo – Terry Gibbs was another one. So it was basically checking everybody that played as much as I could, such as Len Winchester. And then there was a chap called Carl Curtain, who was a big guy on the scene in the early days of the Jazz Warriors. He used to come to a lot of concerts and say, “Have you checked out this guy Walt Dickinson?” And I’d never heard of Walt Dickinson. So I went and bought a record up in the West End, cheapo cheapo and then got completely stunned… That was it! He was like the Don Dada of the vibes. But then you’ve got the other people that I really respect, Bobby Hutcherson obviously is the main one. Everybody’s got their own background and their own thing, and we all learn from each other. The fortunate thing for me is being able to meet some of those heroes, you know Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson, Roy Ayres. And with Roy Ayres I had some really good conversations. He could hear the heritage that I had, he could hear that linage as well. And he’s singing in my ear bits of things that I’ve played, and that shocked me!
Photo: Courtesy of Gary Thomas Kypa
The Dood: It must be humbling?
Orphy Robinson: Yeah! But what a great spirit and what a fantastic musician he is as well. But also classical music – Bach was a big love as well. And just sort of looking at composition and melody and harmony and looking at great masters like a Duke Ellington or a Mingus and those great writers as well. That’s all been very important to me; it’s a big part of my life as well.
The Dood: Make-up?
Orphy Robinson: Yeah. Obviously a big influence over the last twenty years has probably been the improv area and the Free Jazz – the Art Ensemble of Chicago; Sun Ra and the whole Association for Advancement of Creative Musicians. That’s where all the great music is – Chicago.
The Dood: February saw Rap legend Jalal Nurridin’s landmark Hustlers Convention gig/documentary at London’s Jazz Cafe. How were you approached about that and installed as Musical Director for the whole project.
Orphy Robinson: Malik. I had been working with Malik and we had been doing a lot of recordings and various different things together. And has this background with Jalal and also Gil Scott-Heron; he’s worked with them so he was the link. I was lucky enough to hear some bits of music that had never come out and various other things, some greats and that. Then when this opportunity came up he said. “Look, I know you’re an M.D would you be interested in this. I’ve spoken with Jalal.” I said, “Actually yes I would.” Because it’s such an iconic album, it was a great body of work. So I went back and had a listen to it and said yeah definitely, there’s enough going on there. And again it was a great time and a great experience.
The Dood: Was it one of your most challenging projects to date?
Orphy Robinson: I suppose it could be seen as that, because there was nothing written down, it was all live. So I basically had to go through the album and transcribe everything for the band of musicians. So we came from the old-fashioned way, which was to use your ears rather than everything sort of scored out on a score for you. So that was good. But also when you’re with Jalal then the music becomes real, it’s not just this third party thing which is an MP3 or a record, it’s a real person. And to find that it worked and it all gelled together and he was very happy and very complementary. I had some very good feedback from Jalal, from the audience, even George Clinton.
The Dood: Were you aware of the name Jalal prior to being introduced to him, and of his importance in the history of Rap music?
Orphy Robinson: Yeah! Yeah! The Last Poets – the whole kind of history of the voice and how it is used in the spoken word and rap; just following that train of thought as well to the people that I like nowadays who are here. I like Malik’s (Malik & The O.G’s) material, or HKB FiNN, I don’t know if you’re familiar with him… There’s a Black Top record coming for sure!
The Dood: Watch this space?
Orphy Robinson: He’s a bit dangerous!
The Dood: So now let’s move onto one of your many projects. Your collaboration in 2011 with your good friend – piano, computer and electronics wizard Pat Thomas in the guise of Black Top has now borne fruit with release on the Babel label of a three track EP entitled “Black Top #One.” How was the initial link with Pat Thomas established and the idea for Black Top spawned?
Orphy Robinson: Pat and I have been playing together since we met through the London Musicians Collective. We were fortunate to tour with the great conductor Butch Morris and Pat was a part of that ensemble. There was about thirty of us in there; including Byron Wallen. So the three of us hung out – Byron obviously I’ve known forever, but Pat was a new person to me. Then after the tour we just kept in contact and started to play. I brought Pat into a lot of my projects – The Codefive Band with Jean Toussaint, Kendrick Rowe and Dudley Phillips. And we just always were on the same page, the way that we listened to music and stuff.
And because we both were doing a lot of work for a lot of interesting people within the Contemporary Classical world, but also the Free Improv and the Free Jazz world, many times we would sit down and sort of say, “It’s great to listen to the European sounds that come from there; and also the scene comes from obviously The Art Ensemble and all of the Henry Thread Gil, Braxton – everybody from the other side of the water and the whole Chicago thing. But I’m hearing Dub and I’m hearing this and I’m hearing that, so why don’t we use our own perspective; our own black music perspective to bring that into the Improv world.”
The name Back Top though actually came out of the mis-heard word, it was actually “laptop!” (Laughs)
The Dood: That’s an amazing confession!
Orphy Robinson: There’s so many people who say to me, “Oh man that is really profound, you’re paying homage to our ancestors.” and so on. And then I have to explain, well it was a simple thing… And then we thought, well actually it’s not a bad name, because a lot of the influence and the samples and things we were cutting up and using and playing were coming from a black perspective, so it kind of fitted. It was like a black “Rising to the Top” of the music – it was a large element.
The Dood: You have guest saxophonist on this album none other than the U.K.’s very own home-grown saxophone colossus Steve Williamson. How did that invite come about?
Orphy Robinson: Obviously Steve and I go back into the eighties and played lots of music together.
The Dood: His classic album, “A Waltz for Grace.”
Orphy Robinson: Yeah, I sometimes played in his band; we’ve done lots of different music together, including things like the Original Jazz Warriors. Steve was always one of those musicians that you really respected as a real incredible influence and an incredible spirit; but also a lot of the things that he brought to music like the harmony were just phenomenal! The things he would study; he was a very studious person. He could be around the scene and then he can sort of not be a part of the things and then get his own things together as well. And here taken a bit of a break, for maybe four or five years we hadn’t heard of Steve for a very long time. And I was always searching for him, trying to put his name on things – he’s the guy playing in the horn section, but Steve wasn’t around. And then he appeared back on the scene and I asked him to do an invite. The first concert was supposed to be at Cafe Oto with Pat and Steve.
That was the first Black Top gig and Steve was the guest, however Pat had to go to the Caribbean because his mum had fallen ill, so me and Steve did a duet instead of doing the gig. So then the first gig became Jazz in the Round and we performed as a trio there. And out of that came work in festivals in Europe, because they had filmed it and put it on YouTube.
The Dood: On future Black Top projects do you intend to have more guest musicians?
Orphy Robinson: They all are, we had a lot of guests. Cleveland has done quite a few; Byron has done some, HKB FiNN, Evan Parker, so there’s a lot. There are about twelve albums in the can.
The Dood: I appreciate you were with Blue Note in the nineties, and now you’re with the Babel Label. How did that union come about?
Orphy Robinson: Well Babel is based in Dalston, Stoke Newington, which is where I grew up; so it makes sense to be there. And I’ve seen some really interesting and lovely projects that have been on there. I mean I’ve played quite a few albums that have been on Babel, so it seemed just like a natural synergy to be with the Babel Label and I’m having a great time actually.
The Dood: As we’re inside this beautiful St George’s Church, how did the blueprint of this beautiful and much-needed Nexus – One World Music project come about with you and fellow panellist, director and Jazz Warrior Cleveland Watkiss and the Jazz Warriors International in general?
Photo: Courtesy of Gary Thomas Kypa
Orphy Robinson: I’d been invited to perform with the Bloomsbury Ensemble that is based in the church in a more contemporary/classical context. The day that I arrived… I mean we all go past this place on a bus on a bike, and I never looked to see this big massive building! I was completely shocked! So I came inside and set up to be with the orchestra/the ensemble and the first note that I played, I just thought, “I want to take this room home with me!”
So I then spoke with Mark, who curates the building and also conducts the ensemble, and he said, “It’s funny you should ask, you do know this church has a black history, African history. “I said, “Woah! Tell me about it?” He said, “Well, Haile Selassie, this is where he used to come when he was exiled. This is where he delivered the most famous speech that tore apart the Italians. This is an historic place.” Also there’s a film out now called “Bell” which is to do with Dido, who was the daughter of Lord Mansfield’s nephew. Anyway, she was mixed race, he brought her up and brought her here. He didn’t treat her as a slave; he brought her up in the house, Kenwood House in Hampstead, that’s where they’re based, and this (church) is where she was baptised.
But also, he was one of the abolitionists, and so the whole thing to do with Sierra Leone and Freetown is here, inside here. So every year people from Sierra Leone come here as well. And when Haile Selassie went back to Ethiopia, he constructed a big church in Addis Ababa, which is called St Georges, named after this one. So it has a pure African history.
The Dood: You have the cream of the crop of Jazz and World musicians passing through this space, was it always the intention to educate through the diversity and improvisational abilities of the performers?
Byron Wallen (trumpet) Nexus 2014 (1-05-14)
Photo: Courtesy of Gary Thomas Kypa
Orphy Robinson: Again, I had been sat on a bus touring with Nigel Kennedy; I think it was on the Vivaldi, The Four Seasons tour. And I do most of my thinking whilst on these bus tours – different ideas and different projects, and things I like to do. And I just started to write and sketch an idea, and the idea was to present – not just the straight Jazz thing – but to find some way to present people who play on the cusp of classical sort of thing as well. To look at people like Roland Sutherland and Robert Mitchell and all of these musicians; but also to bring forward people that I really enjoy listening to, like Django Bates or Errolyn Wallen or Paul Reid; these sort of people and show them in a different context – this solo and duet context in such a fantastic space. So Mark was all up for that and he said, “Yep! Come on let’s do it!” So yeah, it’s been a very positive experience.
The Dood: What is your vision for Nexus?
Orphy Robinson: That it keeps going consistently. We’ve got a long wish list of all sorts of musicians that we know, that we’d like to bring in, and we’ll get through that list and build up your audiences well.
The Dood: What do you think of the state of UK Jazz and Black music?
Orphy Robinson: That’s an interesting thing; because I have this discussion with quite a few people. It’s very different to our eighties thing, because we came from another background, so we had a lot more energy and we had more areas that we were closer to – so the Caribbean, and a mix of all these different other things. Whereas the youngsters now are two/three generations down. So they’re smoother; it’s the Google generation. We had to listen to a whole record to learn something and to learn all the parts, they just Google a little section.
So it’s a different approach. There are some fantastic young people playing as well, but right now I think there’s the curse of the British Jazz scene, where you have too many cabaret singers taking over and it’s watering the whole thing down. So there’s a whole lot of that that goes on and unfortunately they congregate under the umbrella of the name Jazz, so it devalues the name. There are so many other things that we would like to hear. There are so many other fantastic strong people that are not being picked up by promoters, because the easy thing is to get somebody singing some songs that were sung fifty/sixty years ago – It’s lazy!
The Dood: What advice would you give to young aspiring musicians/composers entering the industry?
Orphy Robinson: Listen to everything! Everything! That’s how you get revitalised… Don’t just listen to one little pigeon-hole thing, listen to everything. And that’s what will sustain you, once you’re open-minded.
The Dood: Leon Ware told me the same thing. He said if you get into his car with him, it’s classical music he has playing.
Orphy Robinson: Yeah, my kids have such a mixture of music on their phones.
The Dood: Is there anything you would like to say to the ukvibe readership?
Orphy Robinson: Keep supporting live music, not dead music – live music!
The Dood: Thank you for your time Orphy; it’s been a pleasure as always. Keep the vibe and “vibes” alive!
Michael J Edwards
Black Top – #One (Babel Label, 2014) with Orphy Robinson & Pat Thomas feat. Steve Williamson
Essential Tour Dates:
The Bach to the Future Tour (May, 2014) with Nigel Kennedy feat. Orphy Robinson & Cleveland Watkiss
10th Jaworki – Muzyka Na Czekanie – Poland
11th Jaworki – Muzyka Na Czekanie – Poland
13th Warsaw – Studola – Poland
15th Southend Cliffs Pavilion – UK
17th Roundhouse Camden – UK
Photos: Courtesy of Gary Thomas Kypa