BLACK TOP with XHOSA COLE
Kevin le Gendre talked to Orphy Robinson and Pat Thomas about BLACK TOP for JAZZWISE in 2014
With a combined musical history that connects free flowing improvisation, Jamaican dub and avant garde electronica, multi-instrumentalist conceptualists Orphy Robinson and Pat Thomas are a wholly contemporary duo. And yet their collaborative project, Black Top, seeks to leapfrog all such generic definitions and provide a creative platform that’s open to any and every possibility, in many ways reflecting today’s multi-denominational music paradigm. With the release of their debut album, # One, which also features brilliant yet elusive saxophonist Steve Williamson, Kevin Le Gendre spoke to both musicians about why having no rules is the only way to create a new jazz tradition today
Springtime sunshine floods the piazza of the British Library. The generous brightness is enhanced by a large pink and blue banner for its latest exhibition, Comics Unmasked, strung between two flagpoles in front of the main building. In mid winter, the façade of one of London’s iconic cultural spaces can feel as forbidding as the task of finding a seat in its treasure troves of knowledge, the reading rooms. For now the brickwork seems to share a smile with coffee-fuelled researchers.
Inevitably, the location exudes history. But anybody who has followed British jazz in the last three decades or so would also recognise a ‘heritage’ venue that stands just next to the Library: the Shaw Theatre. Soon after pulling up a chair on the forecourt, vibraphonist Orphy Robinson glances in its direction, and opens a door to times past.
“All those years ago when I first joined the Jazz Warriors and played over there, that was my first gig on a Sunday, my original thing was to do a kind of Mingus workshop,” he says, eye lingering on the Shaw.
“It didn’t end up as that, even though we had people sitting in. Wynton [Marsalis] played with the Jazz Warriors, Lester [Bowie] played with the Jazz Warriors, we had many different people sitting in, and that was really interesting because we were bringing in experience from other sides, so that was good. To an extent, this is an extension of that and it is closer to the Mingus idea. But it’s two of us rather than one.”
This is Black Top and the second of the two is pianist Pat Thomas, who, like Robinson, is dressed in a wintry dark jacket and hat that serve as a reminder of the sharp nip in the air despite the absence of grey clouds. It might be a metaphor too far to compare them to the sundry caped superheroes currently on show at the British Library, but Robinson and Thomas have brought essential dynamism to that Mingus workshop ideal since their venture began in January 2012. Rather than a band per se, Black Top is an idea, a wholly improvised performance in which the core of Robinson and Thomas is joined by guests, which to date have included artists that cross generational, stylistic and cultural divides: Steve Williamson, Cleveland Watkiss, Caroline Kraabel, Rowland Sutherland, HKB Finn, Shabaka Hutchings, Evan Parker, Ansuman Biswas and Emi Watanabe, entre autres. The concerts, which have taken place at London venues such as the Vortex and Café Oto, are part of a numbered series, the effect of which is a mild hint of Braxtonism. They are now on edition 10, which gives the whole venture a clear sense of life cycle. Black Top’s debut with Steve Williamson, as part of Jazz In The Round at the Cockpit in 2011 has just been issued as an album, # One, which could point as much to the cohesion of the players as it does the possibility of change when # Two comes out.
“We know it’s totally open. After the initial gig with Steve [Williamson] other people started hearing about it, and they wanted to get involved,” says Thomas. “The amount of people who’ve gotten in touch to be involved is fantastic, from all different backgrounds, be it classical, straight jazz guys, improvisers.”
When you look at the respective CVs of Thomas and Robinson, both in their early fifties, having grown up with Thatcherism, TDK, YTS and VHS, the common denominator is an access-all-areas approach to music. Although the former, an Oxford resident, has been known as a free improviser for over 25 years, having worked with Derek Bailey, Roger Turner and Tony Oxley, his 1997 album Remembering is one of the stellar flourishes of groove-based electronica of the jazz-jungle era. The latter, as can be surmised from his earlier reference to the Jazz Warriors, the mid 1980s big bandcum-wellspring of British talent whence came the likes of Gail Thompson, Cheryl Alleyne, Philip Bent, Adrian Reid and Mark Mondesir to name but some, has been a great British soloist who has collaborated with countless international stars. Robinson recorded fine Blue Note albums like When Tomorrow Comes in the early 1990s and has since consolidated his status as a forwardthinking composer-arranger and musical director.
One might also point out that Thomas and Robinson played together in the group Code5ive. But of greater importance is their shared interest in the music of the African Diaspora in both arthouse and populist guises, which means that they are as happy talking the ‘New Thing’ abstractions of Cecil Taylor as they are the original drum ’n’ bass of Studio One firebrand Burning Spear. Stoke Newington-born Robinson, like Steve Williamson, who could not make today’s meeting, did indeed spend his formative years in soul and reggae bands.
“Right, because obviously our background is the Caribbean,” he states, learning forward in his seat. “So we’ve had that strong heritage and the culture, the traditions, the food, the music. It’s always been there. Naturally, I’d be digging back into the well of my experience, and Pat as well, bringing that forward with all the things we know now, using technology, we can jump between digital and analogue… to whatever.”
Thomas takes up the thread and wraps it around an important political stake. “I’ve always said the first experimental electronic music I heard was [Jamaican] dub. It’s an artform but it’s been defined as only popular music, and why is that?”
He broadens the historical context. “Jazz was originally a popular music, and it evolved into something else, but who was defining jazz as popular music? Louis Armstrong was an artist from the time he put his horn in his mouth, he was a world-class artist and an innovator. All these extended techniques they talk about and ascribe to people like John Cage, they’re all part and parcel of jazz.”
Needless to say, the highbrow-lowbrow dichotomy in music, with its maddeningly divisive class connotations, runs counter to the ethos of Black Top, which is first and foremost inclusion and invention.
Both Thomas and Robinson are savvy enough to know that the playing field with regard to funding and media coverage between different genres is hardly a level one, but that won’t quell their desire to let their muses take them wherever they have to go. To that end, a signe particulier of Black Top is the abundant richness of its sonic landscape.
If they produce a dizzying array of concert hall and club noises, this is partly down to the range of instruments deployed at each gig. The vibraphone and piano are supplemented by all manner of keyboards, computers, samples, drum machines and miscellaneous devices
To a certain extent this recalls the crammed stages of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago in the 1960s but reaches further back in jazz history to the likes of Sidney Bechet surrounded by horns and drums in the 1920s.
On stage, Thomas and Robinson are almost constantly flitting around stackedup workstations. “Yeah, I’ll sit there on the marimbula thumb piano, playing a bass line while playing keyboard or samples,” Robinson confirms. “We all think of it as one. That’s very normal. The other night I went out to do a solo gig and I arrived with auto-harp, electronics and steel pan. Recently I’ve acquired an accordion.”
“I’m waiting for that one,” Thomas chuckles heartily.
“Yep, I’ll be driving everybody mad with those black buttons!” quips Robinson. “But it is about what we’re feeling on the day. I’ll collect a whole bunch of samples, if they’re not needed then I won’t use them.”
Thomas finishes the sentence. “The skill of the improviser is having to decide what to use in the here and now. It’s a lot easier when you know you’ve got a composition and you’ve got six months to get this piece right, you know what you have to do. The hardest thing for a jazz improviser is you’ve got to do these things in a split second, which means you’ve got to have an amazing knowledge base. So we have much more stuff available, and what we actually use on the gig… 80% of what could be used is not actually used.
“When I was setting up my electronics back in 1980s and 90s I would sometimes spend all day taking stuff from the TV and then I might not use any of it on a gig because the context wasn’t right sometimes.”
As far as Thomas is concerned that sense of curiosity and probing applied to the world of technology has the same validity as growling on brass or ‘false fingering’ on reeds. If this fuels a wider debate on what constitutes the legitimate heritage of jazz he is happy to fire off his point of view: “The music has been around at most for a hundred years,” he argues, to give perspective before widening the cultural framework. “If you talk to someone like Zakir Hussain then he’ll tell you that the tradition of the tablas has been around for five hundred years, and as far as Indian classical music is concerned that’s a new instrument. Five hundred years! We should get this into context.
“Why are people so keen to say there’s a jazz tradition when it’s a new art and there’s so many ways that it can go? The only logical thing that I can see is that it’s to do with marketing or selling. But after one hundred years how can you say that there’s a tradition? One tradition. To say a tradition is this after just one hundred years is insane.”
How the history, or rather histories, of jazz are reported and distorted, is the natural corollary to Thomas’ statement, and the explanation of why certain things happened in the music as well as the inclusions and omissions of players constitute a minefield that has been exploding pretty much since the first note turned blue.
Listening to Thomas and Robinson sketch out the wider conceptual parameters of Black Top is fascinating because of the specific historical strands that each brings to the table. At several junctures in the conversation Thomas invokes the spirit of a legendary ensemble of which he was a member, Derek Bailey’s Company Week, stating that its magic really stemmed from the confluence of a “whole bunch of different people of different cultures… who’d just play.”
Happy as he is to concur, Robinson comes back time and again to the importance of the trumpeter Lester Bowie, an inspirational member of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago as well as a great leader in his own right, with whom Robinson had the opportunity to spend time. Bowie was keen to emphasise the place of the individual within any collective in jazz.
“Whenever I had the chance to speak with him, or finally get to perform in a concert with him in England, there was always this strong thing of ‘what exactly are you saying, where are you coming from, what’s your story?’ And my story’s not New Orleans. My story is using other elements, and we’re in the improvised side of things, whatever title they put on it.”
Whether or not the ‘Big Easy’ is a central part of the Robinson narrative, the ‘Windy City’, Chicago has a place in his heart insofar it is home to the AACM, the trailblazing collective of which Bowie was a member, along with other great creative musicians, notably Henry Threadgill. The influence they have had on Black Top is considerable and without hesitation Thomas is keen to mention the existence of similar ventures such as St. Louis’ BAG [Black Arts Group], whence came the mighty horn-blowers Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake and Bowie’s younger brother, the Defunkt trombonist and vocalist Joseph. In addition to the selfempowering spirit of all of the above, they had a forthright expression of racial pride, which also pervades AEC’s thought-provoking raison d’etre; ‘Great Black music ancient to future’.
Given their engagement with his history, did the members of Black Top choose their name on the basis of a cultural agenda? Thomas has an interesting answer to the question. “I was working on some stuff on an old black laptop, and I finally got it together and sent it to Orphy. I said I’d like to use some of this stuff. I was thinking of a name, I didn’t wanna have Thomas-Robinson thing or anything that says it’s jazzy or stuck in a genre. Then Black Top… I thought uh, black top… black laptop. After we’d done the name we realised the potential impact of people thinking ‘Black’ Top, but if I was gonna go for the Afrocentric thing I would have called it Top Black. Black Top, ironically, was just a thing.”
Robinson, though, was all too aware of the possible ramifications. “Because we were first playing with all the black musicians, people probably thought it was some kind of black cultural thing. I think a lot of people are afraid of the word black. But being black, we’re not really afraid of it, so it’s fine.”
What is there to be afraid of, though? “Well, Cleveland [Watkiss] once put up on his Facebook page the word black and people were coming in with blackmail, black this and black that, from the negative through to the positive, and it was an interesting look at it. For me it’s black meaning good rather than meaning something bad.
“We know black musicians who are afraid to be classed as black, but that’s their own issues. Maybe it’s to do with marketing or their general mind make-up, but I’ve never been afraid to admit that I’m black.
“You’ll be English when you’re doing good, then you’ll lose and all of a sudden you’re black, and we’ve grown up with that. We see that every day, we’re in the 21st century but it’s still here. We have the odd strange person who says ‘I don’t see colour’, but then if that’s the case you don’t see me.” Or the world as it is from the other side.
Jazzwise \\ JULY14 23
Application closing date: 25th October 2021
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