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“HE NEVER stopped discovering, never played the same tune in exactly the same way twice,” pianist and electronics virtuoso Pat Thomas told me recently at a 120th birthday tribute to Duke Ellington.
The same could be said of Thomas himself who, though as free and experimental as any musician around, has roots deeply grounded in jazz tradition.
When you hear the duo Black Top live — Thomas playing in tandem with vibraphone and xylosynth pioneer Orphy Robinson — you marvel how far from the tradition the pair and their improvisations can move. Their explorations seem to orbit all musical genres.
Thomas met Robinson in 1997 through the Butch Morris Skyscraper Band tour and was invited by Orphy to play in his Nubian Vibes Ensemble and Code 5. They continued to work together and formed Black Top in 2011.
Their third and most recent album on the Babel label, recorded live at Cafe Oto in east London, features two US sonic pathfinders, bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake and playing with such masters has made a big impression on Thomas.
“William has the most beautiful, deep and warm sound, and always makes every note count,” he says. “I remember hearing him first at Ronnie Scott’s in 1990 with The Feel trio, one of the greatest of modern times — pianist Cecil Taylor, drummer Tony Oxley and William.
“Hamid’s greatness as a drummer is his ability to know what not to play — he can play a whisper to sounding like a volcano in an instant. It was a great honour to play with them. We first played in Newcastle the day before a Black Top gig. They’re an amazing rhythm section.”
The close and boundary-breaking musical empathy of Thomas and Robinson grew from their shared Caribbean roots in Antigua and Jamaica. It's also the genesis of their opening track, dedicated to the audacious Jamaican alto saxophonist, the late Joe Harriott.
“Joe created an alternative approach to playing free,” says Thomas, “utilising a very deep understanding of Webern tone rows and an incredibly rich harmonic pallet combined with his mastery of his instrument and Caribbean rhythms.
“It was his willingness not to stay in one direction that has had a major influence on all of us and is central to Black Top’s aesthetics.”
The amalgam of Parker’s relentless, throbbing bass, Drake’s crashing, ubiquitous drums and the combination of Thomas’s powerhouse piano, the electric sound of his sparking Moog theremini and Orphy’s plugging, pinging and pulsating xylosynth seems to reinvent, in an entirely new way, the genius of Harriott.
When Thomas says of Black Top’s music: “For us, it’s an endless journey,” it is as if they are also following the trail of Harriott.
The album’s final track returns to tradition with Bobby Timmons’s Moanin’, made famous more than half a century ago by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. “We ended up playing Moanin’, not intentionally, but we just went with the flow,” says Thomas, almost as if the tradition were carrying the four musical explorers home.
Thomas agrees that, like Ellington's, their music too is beyond category. “For sure,” he says, “and that’s the reason we came up with the name Black Top, so the music couldn’t be put into any strict genre box.”
Have a listen and see what unknown places the music takes you to.
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