by Ian Mann
June 11, 2014
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.
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