Black Top, the duo of multi-instrumentalist Orphy Robinson and pianist Pat Thomas, was initiated in late 2011, as 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, with a spontaneity and daring rooted in the free-jazz experiments of New York loft-scene innovators such as Sam Rivers.
Through regular live performances at North London’s prestigious Café Oto and elsewhere, Black Top have concentrated on developing working relationships with musicians from across the cultural and generational spectrum, who can match their own technical dexterity and handle the element of surprise that’s ever-present in their experiments.
To date, live collaborators have included saxophonists Steve Williamson, Shabaka Hutchens and Jason Yarde, vocalist Cleveland Watkiss, flugel horn player Claude Deppa and trumpeter Byron Wallen.
The debut album No. 1 with special guest Steve Williamson finds the duo reunited with acclaimed UK saxophonist and past collaborator, Williamson, for three wide-ranging musical journeys.
“There Goes The Neighbourhood” begins with Willamson’s unhurried tenor, unwinding like a late-night taxi taking slow corners on city streets. Robinson’s dabs of marimba and Thomas’s sharper piano jabs inject a note of noir-ish, urban tension, while electronic twitters, booms and bubbling rhythms add a neon glare, like street lights reflected in oily puddles.
On “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” Thomas unleashes the astonishing physicality that gives him such dramatic command of the piano: prancing, lurching chords narrow into racing, arachnoid right-hand figures, before a cock-eyed Latin-esque vamp dissolves into splayed pummelling, making full use of aleatory techniques while keeping a keen mind focused on story-telling structure. Robinson’s sharp, pointillist vibes solo is carried off with such daring precision that you can almost see the mallets making contact. It’s all fuelled by an off-kilter electronic rhythm, like woozy, robotic West African highlife.
“Archaic Nubian StepDub” could serve as an apt description on Black Top’s entire aesthetic. On this shorter piece, sci-fi bleeps and whooshes create an edgy dance rhythm, to which Williamson responds with tight circular phrases, pulsing with submerged funkiness.
Black Top’s dramatic, dynamic soundscapes suggest a generous, inclusive and life-affirming music that strives to encompass a 21st century, pan-global worldview. Be glad. Everyone’s invited.
Pat Thomas (keyboards, piano, various electronics) is one of the most challenging and audacious pianists currently operating in the UK, with a unique style that embraces improvisation, jazz and new music. He has played with major figures in improvised music including Derek Bailey, Steve Noble, Tony Oxley and Lol Coxhill.
Orphy Robinson (trumpet, marimba, vibes, steel pan and various electronics) 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.
Steve Williamson (saxophones) has released three acclaimed solo albums, including 1990’s A Waltz for Grace, in collaboration with legendary vocalist Abbey Lincoln. He has played in the renowned ensembles Jazz Warriors, Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath and Louis Moholo-Moholo’s Viva La Black, and worked with Courtney Pine, Iain Ballamy, Maceo Parker and others.