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: their ‘special guest’ on album #One (Babel Label) is saxophonist Steve Williamson.
Williamson first came to prominence during the 80s and 90s UK jazz revival, as did Robinson: they played together in the Jazz Warriors big band. But after gigs with the like of Louis Moholo, Chris McGregor and Graham Haynes, and recording 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 titles 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, albeit box-fresh with a retro twist, as the title of “Archaic Nubian StepDub” suggests.
The album was recorded with a studio audience for live broadcast on BBC radio, 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.
Williamson begins with an incisive melodic lick developed through increasingly implacable variations. At first the only accompaniment is light drops of marimba. Those drops become a flow agitated by Thomas’ piano, but within minutes sax and marimba are reduced to pecking around a bleeping irruption of lo-fi percussion samples, with Thomas playing off his own triggered electronics.
The performance 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 textural fills and coloration. It’s sometimes hard to distinguish Robinson’s marimba from the polyrhythmic tumble of ersatz beats that “There Goes The Neighbourhood” rides to a 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, with Thomas and Robinson creating a lush backing for Williamson’s sax. Thomas gears up with rapid, dynamic and increasingly volatile keyboard runs and extrapolations, and insistent chordal variations prompt Williamson to counter with urgency. 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, triggers repetitive muted bass booms, then turns back to piano to play variations of clusters against them.
A passage of solo marimba signals another change. Thomas’ piano seems to mock a sequence of tight, cyclic, crying sax figures, but their counterpoint merges when Robinson’s marimba cascades along the same trajectory.
On the aforementioned “Archaic Nubian StepDub”, a short encore piece, Williamson offsets a 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. They hold the centre as Thomas brings his electronics out of sync and tumbling to silence.
Orphy Robinson marimba; Pat Thomas piano, keys, computer beats; Steve Williamson tenor and soprano saxophone.