Black Top: No. 1 with special guest Steve Williamson

The style of Black Top's music is so hard to pin down I'm tempted to use the title of the third piece on its debut album to describe it—certainly “Archaic Nubian StepDub” seems about as good as any other label that might be considered. It's not jazz, that's for sure—or at least not jazz in any conventional swing-related sense of the word, though it most assuredly does feature free jazz-styled improvisation and no small amount of technical command on the part of its players. As it turns out, the album's inner sleeve provides some help in characterizing Black Top as “a platform where experimental acoustic dexterity meets spontaneous technologic soundscapes.” That definitely come close to capturing the material Black Top duo Orphy Robinson (marimba) and Pat Thomas (keyboards, computer, beats) laid down in the company of UK saxophonist Steve Williamson on the 31st of January 2012 at The Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone, London.

While one of the three might occupy the forefront as a soloist at any given time, the music more often than not resembles a dialogue involving all three, with Robinson's marimba an omnipresent element punctuating the sax and piano contributions of the other two and the three weaving in and out of the music with circumspection and dexterity. In the opener “There Goes The Neighbourhood,” Willamson's tenor hurtles across jagged terrain etched by Black Top before Robinson solos against piano-and-sax stabs and programmed beats. As the piece advances, acidy electronic sounds surface as Willamson switches from tenor to soprano. Unpredictability reigns throughout the fourteen-minute setting with the mercurial music abruptly changing shape, mutating on the fly and the spotlight rapidly shifting from one musician to the next.

The album's centerpiece, both literally and figuratively, is the twenty-three-minute opus “Guess Who's Coming To Dinner,” which sees Thomas unleashing a bravura series of percussive chords and Willamson pursuing explorative, free-wheeling pathways. Not surprisingly, Robinson's marimba acts as the glue, its roller-coaster patterns often joined by off-kilter electronic rhythms and textural accents. During the piece's final minutes, the dialogue concept becomes a reality, with the saxophonist fluttering in reply to the agitated statements of his partners. Much shorter by comparison, the final piece, “Archaic Nubian StepDub,” begins in electro-funk mode with Thomas cueing a dance rhythm that prompts a series of equally funky runs and circular patterns by Willamson.

There's a high-wire feel to the material that naturally arises out of the players' commitment to free improvisation, an approach complicated, one presumes, by the multi-directional possibilities afforded by a sound palette that adds loops, samples, and programmed beats to comparatively more conventional acoustic instruments. And though Williamson proves to be a natural fit for Robinson and Thomas, he's not the only artist who's collaborated with Black Top, with Shabaka Hutchens, vocalist Cleveland Watkiss, and trumpeter Byron Wallen a sampling of others who've done the same. Even so, one comes away from the release hearing Williamson less as a guest and more as someone who sounds like a permanent member of this audacious outfit.

June 2014