‘#ONE’ – Black Top with Steve Williamson

BlackTop

THE ALBUM ART is intriguing, only subtly hinting at the extended explorations contained within. Recorded live at the creative crucible that is Jazz in the Round (curated by BBC Jazz on 3’s Jez Nelson at The Cockpit Theatre, London), duo Black Top collaborate with saxophonist Steve Williamson to produce an absorbing free jazz experience.

Former Jazz Warriors Pat Thomas (piano, keyboards and electronics) and Orphy Robinson (marimba, vibes, steel pan, trumpet and electronics) have, over the past three years, been experimenting with live instruments and lo-fi technology, inviting jazz ‘royalty’ such as Shabaka Hutchings, Jason Yarde and Claude Deppa to guest with them to create a diversity of improvised trio sets. For this performance and subsequent debut release (recorded in January 2012), they welcomed back acclaimed saxophonist Steve Williamson, together setting up these excitingly original, live soundscapes.

The album’s three tracks cover a spectrum of musical textures and shifting atmospheres, referencing New York’s ‘Loft Scene’ avant-gardism of the 1970s as well as revealing Afro-Caribbean influences and dance rhythms. Piano, marimba and saxes take centre stage, but Black Top also infuse their evident virtuosity with a plenitude of beats, samples, loops and effects.

Opener There Goes the Neighbourhood! meanders to the unadorned sounds of tenor sax, marimba and piano, the three players spontaneously developing their shared ideas with increasing complexity, intermittently augmented by pounding electronic dubstep patterns and oscillations. The gradually-changing marimba ostinatos are, unsurprisingly, redolent of Steve Reich, Thomas’s full piano stabs adding to the hypnotic pulse and Williamson’s tenor melodically soaring above.

At almost 24 minutes in length, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner provides a central focus. The deep, hollow voice of the marimba possesses a strong personality, Robinson building its sustained, edgy mystery towards a repeated phrase on which Thomas lavishes a brash and richly percussive Cuban-style piano display, jabbing and rolling across the entire keyboard. Crunchy tenor heightens the excitement, Williamson blasting and scurrying to the concurrent fever. This expansive journey is initially indeterminate and unpredictable, yet the familiarity of repeated listenings remains just as compelling, the trance-like effect of spiralling soprano sax, rapid marimba, fuzzed electronics, jagged piano and thudding rhythm impressively gripping – and then a palpable calmness when it briefly dies back to more spacial cerebration. The closing section finds Williamson’s soprano sneering broadly at the keys, though piano and marimba are up for the challenge with the same tumultuous intensity… and appearing unresolved at the close!

Archaic Nubian Stepdub throws electronics to the fore in this funkier and more succinct closing track, its perpetual-though-shifting rhythms encouraging Williamson to reciprocate with similarly loop-mimicked soprano sax.

One of Babel Label’s 20th anniversary releases for 2014, the exhilarant rhythms and open environments of #ONE are capable of prompting an almost interactive listener response, such is their power to move. To sample and purchase, visit Babel’s website/Bandcamp store – and catch a great video excerpt of the gig here.

 

Pat Thomas piano, keyboards, electronics
Orphy Robinson marimba, vibes, steel pan, trumpet, electronics
with
Steve Williamson tenor and soprano saxophones

Babel Label – BDV14128 (2014)

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‘Life to Everything’ – Phronesis

Life

HOW MIGHT ONE define ‘supergroup’? In some popular genres, it may well constitute questionable talent, shallow fame, social media infamy, gold discs, the trashing of hotel rooms or hanging around a decade too long in hideously bright designer lounge suits!

OK, so a tongue-in-cheek generalisation. But, in the case of Phronesis, that hugely popular Anglo-Scandinavian powerhouse of contemporary jazz, their success refreshingly reflects their consummate musicality, impassioned creativity, unequivocal scholarship and acceptance of the challenge to be different. Double bassist Jasper Høiby, pianist Ivo Neame and drummer Anton Eger feature prominently, and separately, in many of today’s exciting line-ups. But, make no mistake… when they slot together to record and perform as Phronesis, selling out venues from the UK to the USA and Canada, and to Australia, this trio becomes one of jazz’s supergroups.

With three studio albums to their tally (most recently, 2012’s Walking Dark) and already an acclaimed live album (Alive!, 2010), Danish-born Høiby is widely acknowledged as the band’s architect. But any thoughts of hierarchy end there, for the three have worked together in this remarkably balanced collective for almost a decade, committing themselves to the development of a wholly unified approach and honing what can only be recognised as complete mastery of their art.

In this new live release – recorded before enthusiastic in-the-round gatherings over three nights at The Cockpit during 2013’s EFG London Jazz Festival – the trio demonstrate more clearly than ever their established, democratic principle of writing and performing. And rather than interpreting previous studio album material, they bravely unleash a blistering, multi-layered assault and ‘batterie’ on the senses with nine astonishingly intricate new works, evenly sharing the compositional credits. Since its release a few weeks ago, I have been drawn deeper and still deeper into this mesmerising hour-long spectacular, increasingly rewarded by the staggering display of telepathy, invention and musicianship – and Phronesis clearly revel in and respond to the close, attentive appreciation of their audiences.

Visually and sonorously the trio’s backbone, Jasper Høiby ‘lights the touch paper’ with his pliant bass intro to Anton Eger’s Urban Control. The piece bursts into life with customary fervour, Ivo Neame’s piano glistening over Eger’s skittering percussion and Høiby’s unyielding exploration of the fingerboard. Phronesis always balance improvisation and tight mechanics so perfectly, blending expressive freedom with pin-sharp communication and structure, resulting in the most engaging of experiences. Phraternal finds a rare moment of contemplation, led by the composer’s piano; and, in contrast, the nine minutes of Høiby’s Behind Bars are simply breathtaking, building in intensity, yet so finely calculated – and Eger’s contribution (to see is to believe!) is frenetic almost beyond words.

Ever the searchingly-melodic pianist, Ivo Neame’s Song for Lost Nomads skips to his staccato left hand, Høiby and Eger tracking every phrase; and the smouldering Wings 2 the Mind from Høiby, with those now-characteristic Phronesis unison piano and bass phrases, bubbles away until anticipatory chimes coax this almost peerless drummer into another powerful display. No let-up in momentum, Nine Lives flies like the wind – and the writer’s double bass dexterity would be quite unbelievable had I not witnessed it many times before.

Neame takes a subtle step into the spotlight in his sprightly Deep Space Dance – a distinctive, creative pianistic style which is upheld beautifully by his colleagues. Two compositions from Anton Eger complete the album. Herne Hill shimmies infectiously (much to the delight of the audience), exhibiting such intelligence and shared understanding of dynamics and tempo. And, finally, Dr Black sums up the essence of this compelling trio, seemingly throwing at it every technique they possess, including a drum showcase which no doubt includes various kitchen items except the sink! – every time, a real thrill to listen to.

Life to Everything is likely to hit very high on the 2014 jazz seismograph, such is the calibre of these performances – and all from a set of live (and particularly superior) recordings. Released by Edition Records on 7 April, audio samples and purchasing options can be found here.

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything” (Plato)


Jasper Høiby
double bass
Ivo Neame piano
Anton Eger drums

Photography: Dave Maric
Design: Darren Rumney

phronesis.com
editionrecords.com

Edition Records – EDN1050 (2014)