Monday night and our destination is improv central – Cafe Oto – Dalston on the East side. We have gathered to hear BLACK TOP who, on this night, will feature six homegrown Master Musicians that continue to shape this thing called “jazz” in our own inner city.
Over on the Southbank the London Jazz Festival is hosting two highly anticipated and sold out sessions. The legend that is Herbie Hancock is poised to deliver Plugged In: A Set Solo Explorations while Bill Frissell’s quartet is premiering, The Great Flood, an 85 minute soundtrack to a film inspired by the most destructive river flood America ever experienced. As Black Top didn’t even score as a “Festival Pick” in the Jazz Festival newspaper we should have felt adrift, lost in the Festival’s oversubscribed margins but the session is sold out and there’s a real sense of anticipation in the air.
Cafe Oto has provided a home for four previous Black Top sessions and it’s DIY ambience succeeds in recreating what I imagine to have been the the vibe in Sam and Bea Rivers’ legendary New York Loft sessions. Black Top is vibes-master Orphy Robinson and the bear like experimental pianist Pat Thomas. The duo then extend an invitations to a like -minded fellow musician like saxophonists Steve Williamson and Jason Yarde, vocalist Cleveland Watkiss or trumpet player Byron Wallen to collaborate.
So, just to get this right. On this night. We have not one guest but four! Onstage we have Orphy Robinson – original Jazz warrior who tours the world with virtuoso violist Nigel Kennedy; Pat Thomas – an Oxford based master improviser with a legendary reputation across Europe; Cleveland Watkiss – an original Jazz warrior and one-time member of the Metalheadz crew; Steve Williamson – an original Jazz Warrior and the most innovative saxophonist of his generation; Byron Wallen – a trumpet player who plays with Jack De Johnette, Andrew Hill and Mulatu Astatke and whose knowledge of global musics is Deep!and finally, a new generation marimba master, Corey Mwamba.
There is no plan, just a few potential lift-off points for the journey that we are about follow. All onstage are of African descent. Four have roots in Jamaica and out the buzz and crackle of Orphy’s electronic devices emerges the ghostly sounds of Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari and a narration by Sam Brown. Pat Thomas concentrates on his electronic pulses and shards of sound and Steve Williamson stalks the left hand side of the stage in his macintosh wafting melodies from his tenor that Cleveland picks up and feeds into his own electronic devices.
The interplay between these musicians is respectful. Filled with awareness of each others potential they nudge, play with, cajole a riff or a fleeting melody. It’s almost leisurely and and then without warning they lift it skywards, filling the room with sound until it builds and fractures only to find another elusive pulse to settle on. Cleveland delivers a Jamaican proverb. The singer is resplendent in a red silk scarf and shirt and he regularly dips into the poetic works of Shake Keane – a trumpeter, a forefather. The tradition continues and respect is paid. Shake Keane!
It feels like Orphy, who remains in the shadows, is the helmsman on his JX3P keyboard. There are smiles all round as he delivers his inspired choice of voice recordings (that have you straining to connect with and decipher) and Studio One classics… ‘You better run, run, run, as fast as you can…”. He even pays tribute the Dalston’s reggae infused past with Rupie Edwards’ ‘Irie Feelings’… ‘Skanga.. .Skanga… Skanga…’
In the second set Corey Mwamba steps in on marimba which Orphy has largely ingnored so far. They enjoy a racey duet that lifts the whole room but in the blink of an eye Orphy slips back into the shadows to work his mischief. Steve Williamson soprano slung round his neck opts for blasts on the tenor. He is caught between Pat’s insistent electronic riffs and a constant electronic buzz from Orphy behind him. He needs more in the monitors and it pressures him to take his solos up a couple of notches.
The force field generated by Steve Willamson’s explorations are taken up by Byron Wallen who dazzles with lyrical free flowing passages and solos with wild piercing blast of sound. He has complete control of that trumpet and his breathing is amazing. When he picks up an instrument that’s a cross between a flugel horn and a euphonium we are only left to marvel at the fluidity of his statements and the blasts of sound he can conjure up.
What’s compelling about Black Top? They groove. I find it hard to stand still when they’re playing. Cleveland is schooled in the art of beat boxing. He has lived through the junglist nights of rolling bass lines and waves of drum beats and on the mic he effortlessly carves out and crafts his own grooves. On this night, there are wordless African songs – maybe echoes of what he heard on a recent trip to Ghana. There are more poems and the odd Fact. There are loops and there are beats. The beats are taken up by Pat Thomas and at one point, Quietus Reporter Andy Thomas and I felt we were riding a house rhythm that would have had Moodymann or Theo Parrish jealously bouncing off the walls.
During the late Sixties and Seventies I was totally inspired by the centrality of culture in the struggle for Civil Rights and revolutionary change in the US. It was a small but influential tribe of renegade African American musicians who recognized that freedom in the music was synonymous with fundamental change. Politically, we desperately needed that added cultural dimension here in the UK. However, it was reggae, rather than “jazz”, that carried the sound of resistance into the mainstream and became the sound that underpinned the resistance against unemployment and racism. Three decades on it seems fitting that these UK born musicians should mesh their own Afro-Caribbean musical roots with the liberating experiments of the AACM, The Art Ensemble, Sun Ra, Tribe, Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, Wadada Leo Smith, Sam Rivers, David Murray, Black Arthur Blythe et al in order to create something fresh and continually evolving.
I’m sure I would have dug Herbie’s set at the RFH but I’m sorry, there’s no way it could ever match what these musicians, just laid on us. Black Top’s music was urgent, it was raw, it was sophisticated, it was uplifting, it made us smile and it was NOW. I had that same feeling when I first saw the Art Ensemble at The Roundhouse or Sun Ra at The Mean Fiddler or Dudu and Mongezi at the Jazz Centre Society. I feel blessed that I was in the house and pray that Orphy and Pat, along with their collaborators, continue to take Black Top down the the same radical path, with the same energy, humour and intuitive sense of enlightenment.
LIVE PAINTINGS by GINA SOUTHGATE + Thanks to Roger Thomas