Black Top is always Pat Thomas and Orphy Robinson plus one or two ‘special guests’. In concert, past guests have ranged from ex Prime Time bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma to electronica duo Icarus, so it was always going to be interesting, after an all-too rare appearance by saxophonist Steve Williamson on their first album, to see who they would collaborate with on the next.
And it’s Evan Parker, a mainstay of British improvised music for over 50 yeas, with a longstanding investment in electro-acoustic music, and a much more predictable, if no less welcome choice than Williamson. Where the latter shone brightly but quite briefly in the early 90s UK Jazz revival only to step back into obscurity, Parker often turns up in unusual contexts and multifarious collaborations, so he’s well suited to Black Top’s “holistic” (Robinson) / “archaic Nubian Stepdub” (Robinson) vision / modus operandi.
Where Black Top #One was recorded with a studio audience, initially for a BBC live broadcast, #Two was sourced from a concert at The Vortex jazz club in north London, in March 2014. It’s a longer, looser and more expansive set than its predecessor, with a broader instrumental palette.
On #One, Robinson focused on marimba. Here, his primary instrument is the Roland JX3P synthesizer, sometimes played alongside Xylosynth, always with loops, samples and/or pedal FX also in the mix. On just a couple of tracks he switches to either bass marimba or drums. Thomas , for his part, plays either piano or laptop with electric keys, combining acoustic and electric inputs only on the album’s last two numbers.
Evan Parker plays tenor sax exclusively, which is good because on the crooked horn he’s less prone to slip, as he often does on soprano, into trademark riffles and flocking notes of circulated breathing. Still, he’s instantly identifiable from the outset, sounding short pips and flurries against inside piano and an indistinct scumble of other noises. Sounding the ivories, Thomas is as forthright as ever, but Robinson keeps his synth and samples oblique.
There are nine pieces here, all between five and fifteen minutes long, the album playing as a sketchbook of ideas that the trio explore more or less in-depth, merely toying with some – e.g. the singsong-simple tune on “Gold” – before dynamiting or deconstructing them.
One of the most arresting things about Black Top is the way they interweave and juxtapose acoustic and electronic strands with studious primitivism. Samples are often (by no means always) blunt or boxy, essentially acoustic in texture, while synths and effects are made to dribble, whine or whir like Heath Robinson mechanicals. What binds the varied inputs together is the trio’s playful intellectual curiosity.
Parker isn’t especially loquacious, but when he gets going the Black Toppers wrap his lines with what they do, and he responds with authority. On “Star Llne was what He Said!”, Parker plays against bursts of radio static and other sampled sound, then Thomas counters with angular piano. “Diasporic Liaisons in Dalston”, the next track, is entirely synthetic at first, just a thin synth shimmer overlaid with elementary machine beats. But Robinson then essays a brief xylosynth solo, and Parker enters tentatively. He’s countered first with sampled voices, then low key noise grind, and, as he entrenches himself, with a sudden influx of purposefully crude beats. And here Parker counters with rapid, circular overblowing, flowing over the impermeable samples, his lines mirrored by an undercurrent of synth.
The album flows like this, apparently in concert sequence, with only brief silences at well chosen index points splitting natural bridges into segues. The individual pieces play as such, but they all add up to a whole that’s more substantial than you might expect, and the latter pieces, which explore ideas at greater length, have more gravity.
The two pieces in the middle of the set, “Ivory, Uvory and We Very” and “Ebony Speaks Like a Drum” have Robinson playing drums against initially aggressive piano and gruff sax – a combustible interlude that nevertheless drops free music fans into relatively familiar terrain. Thomas is especially dynamic and irrepressible on the latter of these two, which carries traces of southern African inspiration.
Then come the album’s longest and most satisfying pieces, “Afronauts Ra Black Fore More” (15:37), “Quiet Voices & Other Noises” (08:08), and “Carried Way Beyond” (13:54). “Afronauts…” is initially spacey and soft-hued, later intrusions of weirder, alien electronics counterbalanced by limpid and increasingly Monkishly wonky piano and interlocutory sax. “Quiet Voices…” has a bassline sampled from a Bob Marley song, and skanks along against a current of tumbling ivories only to detour into weird ambience and semi-abstraction. And “Carried Way Beyond” also has traces of Afro Caribbean music courtesy of Robinson’s steel pan, which lays down markers for later piano, sample and FX rhythmics.
The trio keep true to the brittle jauntiness of the steel pan even as it is echoed and abstracted and the performance plays out without climax, a long tail of electronics, looping beats and short sax phrases. The trio keep things simple, maintaining a judiciously even balance of inputs, always knowing better than to queer the funkily eccentric pitch they’ve set up.
Pat Thomas piano, keys, laptop programming/samples, looping; Orphy Robinson xylosynth, Roland JP3, bass marimba, laptop programming/samples, drums, percussion, FX pedals, steel pans; Evan Parker tenor saxophone.
Black Top & Steve Williamson – #One.
Pat Thomas – Al-Khwarizmi Variations.
Alan Wilkinson, Pat Thomas, Steve Noble, John Coxon – The Founder Effect I – III.
John Coxon, Evan Parker and Eddie Prévost – Cinema.
Buy Black Top #Two direct from Babel Label.