October 26, 2014 10:08 pm
Evan Parker with Black Top/John Edwards/ Steve Noble, Vortex Jazz Club, London – review .
By Mike Hobart Author
An incident-packed performance from the pioneering saxophonist and his associates.
The iconoclastic saxophonist Evan Parker has been a leading voice in European free jazz since the idiom emerged in the late 1960s. His mastery of phonics, microtonal scales and continuous breathing has pushed saxophone technique to its limits; his performances are benchmarks of through-improvisation.
Last April, Parker celebrated his 70th birthday at Kings Place, London, with a through-improvised performance featuring a 17-piece orchestra dominated by strings. This gig, midway through a week billed as “Evan@ 70”, marked Parker’s 70th year on more common ground. Bassist John Edwards and drummer Steve Noble are long-time associates with an inside knowledge of the Parker aesthetic. Vibraphonist Orphy Robinson and pianist Pat Thomas of Black Top are newer acquaintances, but their blend of acoustic expressionist jazz and grinding urban electronica fits Parker’s approach to a T.
Both sets began with Parker’s new ensemble setting the scene, the first set pensive with bass to the fore, the second abstract, fractured and low-key. And both evolved sensitively through spontaneous rapport, making full use of the contrasts at their disposal. Robinson’s xylosynth morphs the silky sheen of traditional vibes into the clang of industrial grime. Thomas, an expressionist fury on acoustic grand, doubles on a Theremini, a strange-looking electronic device that delivers venomous whistles and whines sampled from a Moog synth.
The first half was a full-on ensemble showcase and, once Parker entered with his first scattering of notes, evolved through a dense web of connections. Moments of repose grew into peaks of high drama, rolls and clangs went from vibes to drums and cymbals hissed to the whistle of Thomas’s Theremini. The music was crammed with detail and mutual support; even Parker’s extraordinarily extended soprano ululation did not stand out as a highlight.
The second half was equally strong, though here individuals came more to the fore. The collective principle, however, never waned. Edwards and Noble created a driving polyrhythmic pulse, Robinson turned it into a groove with a single repeated note and Evan Parker echoed the blues.
Halfway through the set, Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” was pulled and stretched, and later a funereal four-in-the-bar dirge gradually accelerated until it fractured into abstraction. Typical moments in an incident-packed performance.
Black Top are at Café Oto, London, on November 20 as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.
Thursday, October 16, 2014
Black Top with Steve Williamson, No. 1
Like the bear in the woods, no, make that the tree, just because you don’t hear something doesn’t mean it isn’t worth hearing. Black Top is a good example. They have been together since 2011, propelling forward with a free avant music that I am glad finally to hear. The new album has the matter-of-fact title No. 1 (Babel Label). The group is a duo, multi-instrumentalist Orphy Robinson and pianist Pat Thomas. For their new album tenor and soprano sax work is nicely provided by Steve Williamson. This is London-based music, avant freedom with a kind of New Yorkish edge.
The occasional tape loop and real-time interaction combine for a live program that generates genuine excitement. They call on some tribal pan-African influences via marimba and percussion, wide-ranging pianism with a flair and some great sax work. Some of it grooves with that steady-state regularity but unpredictability that keeps it out of the programmed formula realm.
What’s especially nice here is the unexpected quality of their free explorations. The artists don’t play what you tend to hear these days, in that there is a propensity for memorable inventions that have their own structure and logic, more so than a “completely” open, multi-lane freeway approach would dictate.
It’s the avoidance of avant cliche that keeps your ears in an expectant mode. The band delivers. They are more inclined to listen to each other and construct blocks of inspiration out of the responses and gestures. Not to say that there is anything wrong with a multi-independent avantness, of course. Just that they are slightly less “new music” oriented in that way than some other bands. And also of course that can only work if the instant-compositional inspiration happens. It does.
For a thorough hoot I would recommend you hear this one. Black Top is happening! You can grab No. 1 at the following BandCamp link: https://babel-label.bandcamp.com/album/no-1-with-special-guest-steve-williamson
CD: Black Top – # One –
A powerful, genre-defying debut album from the shape-shifting ensemble
‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?’ is a remarkable, multi-layered centrepiece which elicits a stunning performance from the trio’
Wednesday, 23 July 2014
Initiated in the latter part of 2011 by Jazz Warrior and multi-instrumentalist Orphy Robinson and pianist/sound sculptor Pat Thomas, I saw the shape-shifting ensemble Black Top play an incredible gig as a sextet at its spiritual home, Café Oto, as part of the 2012 London Jazz Festival. It was my favourite performance of that year’s edition, by a country mile.
The elements that so impressed that night – the mercurial interplay, the constant textural shifts, the brilliant musicianship and the playfulness with which the ensemble deconstructed and reassembled their chosen material – are all heard to powerful effect on this genre-defying debut album.
Recorded live as part of ‘Jazz in the Round’ at London’s Cockpit Theatre in January 2012, the core duo are joined on the debut by special guest, saxophonist Steve Williamson (part of the sextet that blew the roof off Café Oto). And it’s Williamson who kicks off album opener, “There Goes The Neighbourhood!”, with a huge clarion call of melody that prompts increasingly impassioned interjections in piano and marimba. Gradually building up an intricately crafted web of motifs, the sharp-edged clarity of the playing and the surging counterpoint is completely gripping.
The 23-minute “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?” is a remarkable, multilayered centrepiece which elicits a stunning performance from the trio, a vast patchwork of rhythmically highly-charged blocks which, at its climactic point, superimposes the hypnotic programmed beats with the teaming polyrhythms of the live instruments in a joyous dance.
The third and final slice of Black Top’s artistry, “Archaic Nubian Stepdub”, provides the clearest example of how the group adroitly constructs layers of clearly differentiated material – looped beats, samples, circular melodic riffs, repeating chordal blocks – and in their singular way transforms them into something exhilaratingly new.
Black Top: #One – review Financial Times:
The three London-based musicians of Black Top deliver free jazz and electronica with urban grit. “There Goes the Neighbourhood” opens with Steve Williamson warm, pensive and solitary on tenor sax, then simmers and stews before closing with a fractured, toe-tapping groove.
Orphy Robinson opens “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, ruminating on marimba before the trio bubble and boil into abstraction. Keyboardist Pat Thomas fleshes out the mix with jungly electronica and expressionist piano, completing an ensemble style to mirror the snappy closing track’s title, “Archaic Nubian Dubstep”.
Black Top with Steve Williamson – #One
Trio dazzle to produce inspired Afro-futurist free
An inspired set of Afro-futurist free improvisation, Black Top’s #One sees the London-based duo of pianist Pat Thomas and multi-instrumentalist Orphy Robinson joined by the brilliant saxophonist Steve Williamson. ‘There Goes The Neighbourhood’ opens the set with Williamson on tenor, sounding relaxed and inquisitive as Robinson’s marimba skips around him, before Thomas’s deliberate piano jabs raise the tension. Subtle electronic beats are used for texture, with the musicians resisting the anchor offered by the dubby bass bubbles and bossa nova presets of Thomas’ laptop to create their own off-kilter rhythmic momentum. On ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’, Thomas lays faint electronic buzzes and whines under Williamson’s beautiful Coltrane-via-Debussy harmonic inventions, before the saxophonist wryly comments in pinched, mocking tones over a submerged techno rumble. ‘Archaic Nubian Stepdub’ sees Thomas and Robinson vamping over Drexciyan bleeps and whooshes, while Williamson unspools tight clusters of soprano sax notes.http://www.list.co.uk/article/61841-black-top-with-steve-williamson-one/
Bebop spoken here:
Monday, July 14, 2014
CD Review: Blacktop – # One
Orphy Robinson (marimba), Pat Thomas (piano, keyboards, computer beats) & Steve Williamson (tenor & soprano saxophones)
(Review by Russell)
Orphy Robinson and Pat Thomas formed Blacktop in 2011. A duo with invited guests, the CD # One features the tenor and soprano saxophones of Steve Williamson. Recorded ‘live’ at an accommodating London venue – Jazz in the Round @ The Cockpit Theatre – the trio set is a first rate example of freely improvised performance. Williamson’s playing – tenor or soprano – has a wistful, distant quality, dropping in and out, swirling around Robinson’s marimba and variously responding to, then avoiding, Thomas’ computer generated beats and tumultuous piano playing.
Robinson’s marimba builds measured, rhythmic patterns undeterred by the frequently frantic excursions of his collaborators, none more so than on the second of three pieces – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Williamson’s often distant sound (of cathedral-like dimensions) is subject to Thomas’ playful electronic interjections. A responsive, riled soprano, responds as if the occupant of a disturbed hornets’ nest. Measured marimba seeks resolution, piano taunts, at first falling in line, then, this being Pat Thomas, things go crazy. Robinson’s marimba gives as good as it gets, Williamson’s soprano engages in the animated conversation, a flourish of descending figures arrive at a sudden end.
The closing short piece – Archaic Nubian Stepdub – evolves out of Thomas’ scene-setting loops. Williamson’s soprano rides on Robinson’s response to the loop. No sooner has a riff been established, an end is signalled. All three musicians stop as if by prior arrangement.
The CD’s running time is forty two minutes – a case of quality not quantity.
# One by Blacktop is released on July 14 on the Babel Label (BDV14128).
Release of No. 1 with special guest Steve Williamson by Black Top
Black Top & Special Guest Steve Williamson – #One (Babel Label)
Orphy Robinson marimba; Pat Thomas piano, keys, computer beats; Steve Williamson tenor and soprano saxophone.
Pat Thomas and Orphy Robinson are the two constants in Black Top, but it’s not so much a duo as an avowedly collaborative project: every Black Top concert involves guest musicians, and it seems their recordings will be no different: saxophonist Steve Williamson features as their ‘special guest’ on album #One.
Williamson, like Robinson, first came to prominence during the 80s and 90s UK jazz revival, and they played together in the Jazz Warriors big band. But after gigs with the like of Louis Moholo, Chris McGregor and Graham Haynes. and four albums as a leader for Verve between 1990 and 1995, Williamson has been mostly off-radar, and that’s a crying shame.
Although Black Top is very much a European avant-jazz affair, its sound also carries traces of leftfield Hiphop sampling viruses and Afro-Caribbean rhythms. Thomas has exhibited a longstanding fascination with electronics throughout his prolific recording career (sixty recordings and counting), but even by his own idiosyncratic standard, Black Top’s blend of acoustic instruments, lo-fi beats and electric keyboards is box-fresh. That’s box-fresh with a retro twist though, as the title of “Archaic Nubian StepDub” suggests.
The album was recorded with a studio audience for live BBC radio broadcast, the meat of which comprises two pieces: “There Goes The Neighbourhood”, which runs to 13:45, and “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner”, which is ten minutes longer.
Willamson begins with an incisive melodic lick, and develops it through increasingly implacable variations. At first the only accompaniment is light drops of marimba, but those flow once agitated by Thomas’ piano. Within minutes though, sax and marimba are reduced to pecking around a bleeping irruption of lo-fi percussion samples, and Thomas on piano playing off his own triggered electronics.
The piece takes in many such sudden transitions. Williamson’s lines are characteristically steely yet almost languid, perfectly complementing Thomas’ herky-jerky boom-beats and Robinson’s incisive textural fills and coloration. It’s often hard to distinguish Robinson’s marimba from the polyrhythmic tumble of ersatz beats that “There Goes The Neighbourhood” rides to its conclusion, but eventually it courses in bright liquid flurries in counterpoint to Thomas’ flights of pianism.
“Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” starts on a noir vibe, as Thomas and Robinson create a lush backing for Williamson’s sax. Thomas gears up with rapid, dynamic and increasingly volatile keyboard runs and extrapolations before insistent chordal variations prompt Williamson to counter with urgency. Some solo space for Robinson allows him to explore his instruments higher, brighter range, and Williamson joins in kind with serpentine soprano. Thomas contrasts skittish beats with high tones and distortion before triggering repetitive muted bass booms, then turns back to piano to play repetitions and variations of clusters against them.
A passage of solo marimba again signals a change. Thomas’ piano seems to mock a sequence of tight, cyclic, crying sax figures, and their counterpoint becomes a deluge when Robinson’s marimba cascades along the same trajectory.
On the aforementioned “Archaic Nubian StepDub”, Williamson offsets the synthetic insistence of sampled beats and wayward electronic bleeps with taut, soul-inflected licks and looping figures that draw Robinson’s marimba into complementary interplay, those two holding the centre as Thomas brings his electronics out of sync and tumbling to silence.
Black Top # One with Special Guest Steve Williamson
Babel **** RECOMMENDED
First of all I’m not sure why CD buyers have to wait until mid-July for the release of Black Top’s debut available now as a download album. Surely the label should bring the physical release date way forward. I attended the concert captured on # One with Special Guest Steve Williamson recorded at the opening night concert of Jazz in the Round at the Cockpit theatre in London’s Marylebone on 30 January 2012 and the album is a vivid souvenir of that excellent performance, the sound quality, even via a stream, strong and sure. Black Top was initiated in the latter part of 2011 by Jazz Warrior and multi-instrumentalist Orphy Robinson and pianist/sound sculptor Pat Thomas, and the group appears in different formations, with Steve Williamson guesting here (Williamson and Thomas had appeared as support to Steve Coleman’s Reflex a few months before at the London Jazz Festival). “Exploring the intersection between live instruments and lo-fi technology combining twisted loops, samples, dub-effects that draw on their Afro-Caribbean roots with the spirit of pure improvisation which is rooted in the free jazz experiments of NYC musicians like Sam Rivers,” according to the band. ‘There Goes the Neighbourhood’, with its Space Invaders-like bespoke keyboard sounds bubbling up from the Cecil Taylor-esque imagination of Thomas, brooding marimba density from Robinson and tender soprano saxophone lines from Williamson, who hasn’t been heard properly on record for years, is the 13 minute-plus opener; with the abstract hugely long ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’ (a nod perhaps in its title to the 1950s Stanley Kramer film starring Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier) coming in like velvet via an a cappella Robinson beginning, Thomas later funnelling wild octave-trampling sheets of sound on what essentially is an extravagant ballad and the most startling achievement of this superb album. ‘Archaic Nubian StepDub’, the short closer, with Thomas’ zappy sci-fi keyboard lasering the opening before Williamson’s Gary Bartz-like tones give Robinson a feast for thought. That’s improvising. Stephen Graham
The Jazz Breakfast online magazine.
Black Top – #One
(Babel Label BDV14128)
Black Top is a duo of marimba player Orphy Robinson and pianist/keyboards/electronics player Pat Thomas. They have developed a free improvisation style which incorporates their acoustic instruments with some basic electronic manipulation, and they like to have a guest musician to work with, usually a solo-note instrument or voice.
For this Jazz In The Round concert in The Cockpit Theatre, London, in January 2012, their guest was the highly distinctive saxophonist Steve Williamson.
They recorded three pieces, There Goes The Neighbourhood, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and Archaic Nubian Stepdub. In those titles there are hints of their influences: protest and subversion, Black culture in general, Afro-Caribbean influences in particular, and sci-fi element that nods towards Sun Ra.
There Goes The Neighbourhood develops slowly and subtly from Williamson’s short “sentences” with Robinson and Thomas echoing their length before all three musicians begin to stretch out into less cryptic eloquence, eventually arriving after 13 minutes at a choppy, funky place.
Guess Who’s Coming… lets Williamson lead again with marimba and piano providing a more expansive cushion. After a while Thomas becomes the dominant player here, setting out a brief left hand cycle which Robinson takes up, and over which Thomas launches a Cecil Taylor-like attack across the full length of the piano keyboard. Williamson joins in a groove starts to establish itself, and his playing shows a combination of the articulate and the impassioned.
The third piece brings the spacey electronics into more prominent play, Williamson bouncing a hooky little riff off a looping selection of beeps, swoops and swishes from Thomas and deep, dark rumbles from Robinson.
Overall, I think this kind of free improvisation is best heard live and in the moment of creation, but I guess it’s also valuable to have a record of such performances, and this one is a focussed and succinct set from a band with a strongly distinctive sound.
Down With it Magazine
As part of my mission to write about some new ‘jazz’ here at downwithit.info I was delighted to obtain this new live recording fromOrphy Robinson and Pat Thomas who feature Steve Williamson as a guest on tenor and soprano saxophones.
#One is the first CD release from a series of live performances featuring a changing cast of collaborators.
The CD sleeve says: ‘Black Top. Utilising music and sounds influenced by the African diaspora providing a platform where experimental acoustic dexterity meets spontaneous technological soundscapes.’ Well worth a listen then!
It’s not easy listening though. Orphy’s marimbas run throughout and Pat Thomas is ever present with piano keyboards and beats. There are no immediate and obvious reference points after a couple of plays, other than a hint of Eric Dolphy’ Out To Lunch that I latched onto
I could spend the next three weeks listening to and then listening again in an effort to try to explain the three tracks here- but I won’t. I know this is a CD that I’ll return to, as it’s interesting and complex and when I do, I’ll add some more here. It’s a bit of a cop out but I don’t think Black Top deserve to be rushed at because it is to be hoped that this project will endure and go from this strength to future glory.
The set consists of three tracks:- There Goes The Neighbourhood; Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and Archaic Nubian Step Dub.
You can get a flavour from the YouTube film of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, which captures the musicians performing this piece at their live recording at London’s Cockpit Theatre.
Archaic Nubian Step Dub closes the CD. Williamson stretches out and is at his most inventive on the shortest track.
My personal jury is still out on Black Top. That said, I am looking forward to seeing them live and hearing what they choose to release next.
You can visit Black Top’s website here
The band etc:- Orphy Robinson (marimba); Pat Thomas (piano, keys, computer beats); Special Guest: Steve Williamson (tenor & soprano sax). Live recording engineer: Steve Lowe. Recorded 31 January 2012. Jazz In The Round, The Cockpit Theatre, London. Sleeve: Ian Swifty Swift. Label: Babel Label. Issued 2014.
Textura online magazine
Black Top: No. 1 with special guest Steve Williamson
The style of Black Top’s music is so hard to pin down I’m tempted to use the title of the third piece on its debut album to describe it—certainly “Archaic Nubian StepDub” seems about as good as any other label that might be considered. It’s not jazz, that’s for sure—or at least not jazz in any conventional swing-related sense of the word, though it most assuredly does feature free jazz-styled improvisation and no small amount of technical command on the part of its players. As it turns out, the album’s inner sleeve provides some help in characterizing Black Top as “a platform where experimental acoustic dexterity meets spontaneous technologic soundscapes.” That definitely come close to capturing the material Black Top duo Orphy Robinson (marimba) and Pat Thomas (keyboards, computer, beats) laid down in the company of UK saxophonist Steve Williamson on the 31st of January 2012 at The Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone, London.
While one of the three might occupy the forefront as a soloist at any given time, the music more often than not resembles a dialogue involving all three, with Robinson’s marimba an omnipresent element punctuating the sax and piano contributions of the other two and the three weaving in and out of the music with circumspection and dexterity. In the opener “There Goes The Neighbourhood,” Willamson’s tenor hurtles across jagged terrain etched by Black Top before Robinson solos against piano-and-sax stabs and programmed beats. As the piece advances, acidy electronic sounds surface as Willamson switches from tenor to soprano. Unpredictability reigns throughout the fourteen-minute setting with the mercurial music abruptly changing shape, mutating on the fly and the spotlight rapidly shifting from one musician to the next.
The album’s centerpiece, both literally and figuratively, is the twenty-three-minute opus “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” which sees Thomas unleashing a bravura series of percussive chords and Willamson pursuing explorative, free-wheeling pathways. Not surprisingly, Robinson’s marimba acts as the glue, its roller-coaster patterns often joined by off-kilter electronic rhythms and textural accents. During the piece’s final minutes, the dialogue concept becomes a reality, with the saxophonist fluttering in reply to the agitated statements of his partners. Much shorter by comparison, the final piece, “Archaic Nubian StepDub,” begins in electro-funk mode with Thomas cueing a dance rhythm that prompts a series of equally funky runs and circular patterns by Willamson.
There’s a high-wire feel to the material that naturally arises out of the players’ commitment to free improvisation, an approach complicated, one presumes, by the multi-directional possibilities afforded by a sound palette that adds loops, samples, and programmed beats to comparatively more conventional acoustic instruments. And though Williamson proves to be a natural fit for Robinson and Thomas, he’s not the only artist who’s collaborated with Black Top, with Shabaka Hutchens, vocalist Cleveland Watkiss, and trumpeter Byron Wallen a sampling of others who’ve done the same. Even so, one comes away from the release hearing Williamson less as a guest and more as someone who sounds like a permanent member of this audacious outfit.
JAZZWISE Magazine July 2014
The Wire Review July 2014
Black Top: #One review – edgy, uncompromising improv jazz
Black Top are marimba player Orphy Robinson and keyboardist/computer musician Pat Thomas, but their gigs are improv jams featuring various guests. On this Blacktop debut (recorded live in 2012), they were joined by the gifted Steve Williamson, one of UK jazz‘s best-kept secrets, on saxes. There are just three tracks, with the first feeling like a rangefinder, the short finale having a stricter, loop-driven character quite different from the rest, and the freewheeling 23-minute centrepiece seeing the trio rise to their full height. In the opener, Williamson’s dark tenor-sax flares burst over steady marimba patterns and, eventually, raw and percussive piano chords, before Thomas takes the piano improv into tumbling free jazz, and finally Williamson returns with sinewy soprano fluency. The epic second piece begins in a cool, slinky hum with Williamson in ECM-tenor mode, but then combines free piano, an insistent riff and more sly, slurring soprano. It’s edgy, uncompromising improv, but full of rugged lyricism, and built on plenty of compelling grooves.
Black Top: No. 1 (2014) All about jazz:
Published: | 1,493 views
No. 1—the energetically contrapuntal debut album by the duo Black Top—is, in reality, a trio endeavor. UK based multi-instrumentalists Orphy Robinson and Pat Thomas have been a frequent presence in the London club scene, sharing their live performances with a host of up and coming UK artists. Among them, saxophonist Steve Williamson is the most well established having recorded with vocalists Abbey Lincoln and Cassandra Wilson as well working live with Courtney Pine, Iain Ballamy, and Archie Shepp. Williamson joins Black Top in what is surely the most improvisational recording work of his career. The marriage of Robinson and Orphy’s Afro-Caribbean influenced improvisations and Williamson’s jazz-funk-traditional roots make for a highly effective collaboration that is unique in its totality.
No. 1 consists of three original pieces, of which the first two account for almost forty minutes of the album. “There Goes the Neighbourhood” opens to Willamson’s tenor weaving long serpentine lines. The dark ambience is punctuated with sporadic marimba from Robinson which varies from being synchronous to somewhat disembodied from the sax. Thomas’s piano adds a percussive tautness to the piece, often trading places with the marimba and at other times playing in such close proximity that the two become extensions of each other’s natural characteristics. The electronic components added by both Robinson and Orphy create a colorful kaleidoscope of sound.
With its sweeping interconnectivity “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” maintains a core theme—but just barely— as the players race around it carrying everything in their instrumental cache. Thomas leads the chase, romping inside-out through the melody, touching briefly on Latin influences and eventually flaying the keyboard without ever losing complete site of the fundamental phrasing. Robinson, now on vibes, paints colorful and intricate patterns while eccentric electronic cadences drive the forward momentum of the piece. The relatively brief closer, “Archaic Nubian StepDub,” features cyberpunk rhythms, playing off Williamson’s subdued jazz-funk dialect.
No. 1 has the sound of a bigger band thanks to the musical diversity of Robinson and Orphy. It is all the more remarkable that this is a live recording and conjures the image of the two musicians frantically multi-tasking to keep up the pace. Yet in the music there is no sense of frenzied activity. Despite the persistent concentration of electronic rhythms, these pieces have the forceful dignity and beauty of a Jackson Pollock painting. Black Top manages to successfully blend compatible freedom of expression with measured grace. As a result, No. 1 is something very different and very rewarding.
Track Listing: There Goes the Neighbourhood; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner; Archaic Nubian StepDub.
Personnel: Pat Thomas: keyboards, piano, electronics; Orphy Robinson: trumpet, marimba, vibes, steel pan, electronics; Steve Williamson: saxophones.
Record Label: Babel Label
THE JAZZMAN Online Blog.
Black Top # One
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
An absorbing, constantly mutating patchwork. Most adventurous listeners should find something to enjoy in Black Top’s music, particularly the interaction between the players.
(Babel Records BDV 14128)
Black Top is a freely improvising duo comprised of multi instrumentalist Orphy Robinson and pianist/electronics artist Pat Thomas. Robinson, known primarily as a vibraphonist, first came to prominence during the 1980s jazz boom, a period that saw him signing briefly for Blue Note Records. The intervening decades have seen him gravitating ever closer towards the world of free improvisation via collaborations with Steve Beresford, Tony Bevan, the late Derek Bailey and many others. I have fond memories of his playing, mainly on steel pans, with the group Clear Frame alongside drummer Charles Hayward, saxophonist Lol Coxhill and former Soft Machine member Hugh Hopper on electric bass. Sadly both Coxhill and Hopper are no longer with us.
Thomas is one of the leading figures on the British free improv scene and he, too, has worked with Bailey and Coxhill and has also collaborated with drummers Steve Noble and Tony Oxley among many others. Oxford based Thomas met Robinson in 2011 through the London Musicians Collective and the pair discovered an instant rapport that drew upon their shared Jamaican roots.
Black Top describe themselves as “a shape shifting unit, dedicated to exploring the intersection between live instruments and lo -fi technology”. Their music is wholly improvised but incorporates the use of loops, samples and dub reggae effects. The duo refer to it as “utilising music and sounds influenced by the African diaspora”.
It was always intended that the duo would work with guest musicians and their London gigs at venues such as Café Oto and the Vortex have included collaborations with saxophonists Shabaka Hutchings and Jason Yarde, vocalist Cleveland Watkiss, drummer Louis Moholo, and trumpeters Claude Deppa and Byron Wallen among many others.
For their first album recording Robinson and Thomas collaborated with saxophonist Steve Williamson, another musician who first entered the public consciousness during the 1980s, firstly as a member of Jazz Warriors and later as the leader of his own groups. I seem to recall seeing him leading a band at the Guildhall as part of the 1990 Brecon Jazz Festival although the memory is now a little hazy at such a distance. In those days Williamson was regarded primarily as an alto player but he has always played all types of saxophone and on this album specialises exclusively on tenor and soprano. It’s good to hear him again following a long spell of inactivity when he seemed to have virtually dropped out of the jazz scene.
“Black Top # 1” is a live recording that was captured at one of Jazz on 3 radio presenter Jez Nelson’s regular “Jazz In The Round” events at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone, London. With the audience surrounding the band on all four sides these sessions have become famous for their intimate and inspiring atmosphere and the Cockpit seems to be becoming an increasingly popular venue for live recordings, the terrific new Phronesis album “Life To Everything” was taped at a special London Jazz festival edition of Jazz In The Round.
The Black Top album consists of three lengthy wholly improvised improvised pieces beginning with “There Goes The Neighbourhood”. Williamson’s unaccompanied tenor shapes the direction, gently and ruminatively at first, as he is shadowed by Robinson on marimba, the instrument on which he specialises throughout the album. Thomas’ more animated, almost violent piano stabs add momentum and a genuine three way conversation ensues with Robinson subtly taking over as Williamson adopts a slap tonguing technique. Gradually the baton passes to Thomas who adds electronic beats and glitches to the proceedings as well as briefly soloing in Cecil Taylor/Keith Tippet/Myra Melford style. As with all the best improv the focus is constantly shifting and Williamson assumes the lead again, conversing with Thomas as the pair are shadowed by Robinson.
And so it continues, with Williamson periodically moving to the shadows as the core duo take over and Thomas re-introduces elements of electronica. It’s an absorbing, constantly mutating patchwork that obviously engaged the live audience and which has the same effect on the home listener. One of the features of the similarly inclined Clear Frame was just how melodic and rhythmic their brand of free improv was, and these are qualities that also apply to Black Top. This music may be challenging but it’s not wilfully ugly, aggressive or confrontational. Most adventurous listeners should find something to enjoy in Black Top’s music, particularly the interaction between the players.
The centre piece of the album is the twenty five minute “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” which begins with the shimmer of Robinson’s marimba, later joined in harmonious dialogue by Williamson’s gently probing tenor. It’s Thomas who again eventually steers the music in a different direction with a bravura solo that revels in wilful dissonance and its own physicality, shades of Cecil Taylor once again. Williamson rises to the challenge, responding to Thomas with some of his most impassioned playing of the set. When the storm blows itself out Robinson takes over with a dazzling display of unaccompanied mallet work. The return of Williamson plus Thomas’ vaguely sinister electronica alters the mood yet again with the saxophonist adopting a dry, Middle Eastern inflected tone above a backdrop of rudimentary electronic rhythms, busily percolating marimba and Thomas’ chunkily distinctive piano stylings. The players navigate their way through a number of other phases as tension is built and released with sharp eared interaction the order of the day.
The title of the closing piece, “Archaic Nubian Dubstep”, is a phrase the duo have chosen to describe the aesthetic of their music, hinting at influences both ancient and contemporary. Thomas’ electronic rhythms obliquely acknowledge both science fiction and modern dance culture as Williamson’s sax prances lightly around both these and Robinson’s joyously bubbling marimba.
The way the saxophonist’s concentrically circling phrases interlock with Thomas’ electronica and Robinson’s marimba rhythms recalls both the minimalism of Steve Reich and contemporary dance rhythms. It’s the most obviously accessible piece on the album but is tantalisingly short.
I found much to enjoy in Black Top’s music and was particularly pleased to hear Williamson again for the first time in many years. I’ve always been a fan of Robinson’s playing and was impressed by his obvious chemistry with the more consciously avant garde Pat Thomas. Obviously any record can only represent a snap shot of the duo’s music as every Black Top show will be substantially and significantly different from the last, even more so given their policy to perform with a different guest musician each time. However it’s good to hear a group with a strong shared philosophy/aesthetic and I hope I get the opportunity to enjoy a Black top live performance in person at some point.
The June 2014 edition of Wire magazine presents an informative interview with Robinson which offers something of a career retrospective (including his collaboration with violinist Nigel Kennedy) alongside fuller discussions relating to Black Top and other ongoing Robinson projects. As further reading it’s highly recommended.
Jazzwise review April 2014
Black Top special guests Ansuman biswas (perc) – Emi Watanabe (Japanese Traditional Flutes)
ON THE FESTIVAL FRINGE…. BLACK TOP RISES IN DALSTON
So, just to get this right. On this night. We have not one guest but four! Onstage we have Orphy Robinson – original Jazz warrior who tours the world with virtuoso violist Nigel Kennedy; Pat Thomas – an Oxford based master improviser with a legendary reputation across Europe; Cleveland Watkiss – an original Jazz warrior and one-time member of the Metalheadz crew; Steve Williamson – an original Jazz Warrior and the most innovative saxophonist of his generation; Byron Wallen – a trumpet player who plays with Jack De Johnette, Andrew Hill and Mulatu Astatke and whose knowledge of global musics is Deep!and finally, a new generation marimba master, Corey Mwamba.
Black Top reviewed by The Weekly World at the 2012 London Jazz festival.
The Caribbean roots of jazz have long gone unheralded; many a jazz (warrior) has had the unenviable task of ensuring that West Indians and their descendants are not only seen as credible virtuosic improvisers, but also the progenitors of jazz or funk on this side of the Atlantic. As Cleveland Watkiss puts it, “let’s get away from the American songbook”. The books Cleveland chose for this night’s performance included Shake Keane’s Angel Horn and The Anonymous Book of Jamaican Proverbs. And in his own words, “We call the music “Archaic Nubian Stepdub”. Everything you hear or feel is totally improvised in the moment from 360° genetic memory”.
Black Top #5
Jazz Reloaded Review of Black Top 2012 London Jazz Festival
Black Top #5, Café Oto gain a 5 star review at the 2012 London Jazz Festival
An evening of surpassing invention and ambition at the London Jazz Festival from the remarkable five-piece
“Boldly plotting lines that embraced jazz past, present and future”
As the saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter once famously remarked in a 1992 interview with Mel Martin, “The word ‘jazz’ means to me no category”. You would similarly search in vain for a pigeon hole in which to place Black Top #5. An evening of surpassing invention and ambition, there might be a more creative, more engaging and more inspiring gig at this year’s London Jazz Festival. But I somehow doubt it.
The Quietus – 2012 London Jazz festival Roundup
This year’s London Jazz Festival, writes Andy Thomas, was at its best when mining the sounds of the past to zoom into the future,courtesy of stunning live shows from Black Top, Wadada Leo Smith and more…..British jazz does provide us with the most creative set of the week however, in the form of the heavy London improv collective Black Top. Originally planned as a trio performance at Café Oto with vibes/steel pan player Orphy Robinson, keyboardist Pat Thomas, and saxophonist Steve Williamson, the collective actually debuted at the Dalston venue as a duet when Thomas had to pull out of the gig. They have since returned to Oto as a trio with trumpeter Byron Wallen, but tonight’s performance of this occasional project promises to be the heaviest yet, with all the aforementioned players alongside ex Metalheadz jazz/improv vocalist Cleveland Watkiss and Corey Mwamba on vibes.
It proves to be an incredibly powerful yet eloquent session, exploring the interaction of live instrumentation and technology in jazz improvisation from a Black British perspective. There is no set plan for tonight; the band relying instead on a freeform intuition gained not only from the members’ grounding in the hugely influential Jazz Warriors but also through their shared Jamaican roots. This foundation in reggae as well as jazz is evident both in the use of echo and effects, but also the ethereal samples of roots classics that permeate the set. This is a band deeply respectful of their heritage, and when Watkiss takes a break from improvising with beat box and electronics, it’s to read a poem from the great British Caribbean trumpeter Shake Keane. When the power of the ensemble subsides after 90 exhilarating minutes, those lucky enough to witness this gathering are left with no doubt that free can also certainly be funky.
Paul Bradshaw · Gloucestershire College of Art & DesignThere was lots of national press for the jazz Festivals big names.. Sonny Rollins, Chick Corea… so, it’s a joy to read a piece that touches down of the fringes of the festival to explore the more challenging and turbulent experiments of warriiors like Black Top & Wadada Leo Smith alongside the piano pyrotechnics of the Crescent City’s Marcus Roberts and a wonderful reminder of the talent that was Michael Garrick. The vibe in the Festival Hall was terrific on both Saturday and Sunday – especially during Jazz in the Round.
Orphy Robinson, Steve Williamson
(Cafe Oto, September 22nd 2011. Review by Roger Thomas)
There was both disappointment and excitement at Café Oto as Thursday’s billing of Pat Thomas, Orphy Robinson, and Steve Williamson – Black-Top – appeared as a duo. They were minus Pat Thomas, his gadgets and lap-top (from which the trio derived its name). Pat Thomas had had to rush abroad at short notice to visit his ailing mother. Black-Top are, apparently, already booked for a future trio performance at Café Oto.
As it was, however, Orphy and Steve wooed and mesmerised an audience. In the dimly lit but cozy surroundings of Café Oto it was still easy to notice the coterie of musicians in the house. For each improvisation Steve would do most of his work on tenor sax with short forays on soprano. Over a bed of chords and patterns laid out by Orphy’s marimba he feeds ideas that are quickly snatched by Williamson who then explores, digests and regurgitates new interpretations.
I was transfixed, found I simply didn’t want to miss anything. I was also told that this was the first occasion in a very long time that Steve had taken his tenor sax from its case and played it. Amazing.
Review: Jazz in the Round “Black Top”
Cockpit Theatre, 30th January 2012.
The headliners for the evening were Black Top, the first outing for this new trio of Steve Williamson, looking very Presidential in a pork-pie hat, on tenor and soprano saxophones, Orphy Robinson on marimba and Pat Thomas on keyboards and electronics. Playing wholly improvised music, they spanned several genres in their short set, meeting Nelson’s criteria for the evening all on their own. They displayed a deep understanding of each others’ music, as themes started by one player were picked up by another, notes spiralling around the trio. Each has a distinctive, powerful voice. Thomas’s piano was superlative and inventive, his left hand sometimes laying down a solid rhythm whilst his right made jagged runs up and down the keys – a disturbing juxtaposition of form and freedom. His electronics provided a variety of effects from chimes to white noise, sometimes being more of a distraction. Robinson’s marimba provided a warm, human touch, and Williamson’s intense saxophone playing provided touches of familiarity as well as exploration.
This was a fascinating night’s music, and the audience listened intently, keeping Nelson’s request that we respect the music – all save a photographer who wandered about with his camera audibly clicking at the quietest moments. The Cockpit Theatre sits the audience on all four sides of the stage, so we surrounded the musicians – this really was jazz in the round. It certainly felt very intimate, watching musicians be so creative, so close.
JAZZ IN THE ROUND … a bit late but quick review
Posted on February 5, 2012
After forking out a tenner for a copy of McCullum’s ‘Distilled’ CD we settled in for a purely improvised set of “archaic Nubian” bizness from the trio Black Top. Improv is an art in itself and while it tends generate a combination of alienation and pure reverence, I like think we sometimes overlook it’s lighter moments and those fleeting snatches of humour. Interestingly and unusually, being in-the-round Orphy Robinson and Pat Thomas had their backs to each other and this left the saxophonist in a similar position as he wove his own melodic lines into music that built in haphazard intensity. That said, it was great to hear Steve Williamsonon both tenor and soprano back in the throes of a freestyle session where Orphy’s mallets danced around on his marimba, scatter gunning rhythms that allowed the bear-like Thomas to rove dangerously over the ivories or switch to electronics – loops, beats and blast of white noise.