Black Top percussive and pulsating at Café Oto


As much an ever changing live workshop as a band, Black Top chronicles each appearance with a number. Tonight chalks up 10 and provides a clear historical base to the event. Core members, pianist Pat Thomas and multi-instrumentalist Orphy Robinson have been at the helm for the best part of two years and the list of collaborators, from Steve Williamson and Cleveland Watkiss to, latterly, Evan Parker, has given the whole venture considerable gravitas.

The Black Top ‘series’ essentially provides a creative platform for different generations of cutting edge players. Tonight’s incoming personnel, percussionist Ansuman Biswas and flautist Emi Watanabe fit seamlessly into the established framework, and from the outset there is a freedom of expression that brings a welcome thrill factor to the performance. Literally, sound spreads out across the room as Biswas crashes chiming temple bells while walking through the audience to take his place on stage at a customised percussion rig that includes kick and frame drums, bows, cymbals and tablas. Multiplicity of instruments is indeed the guiding principle for each player. Thomas has a keyboard with myriad samples next to the piano, Watanabe ryuteki, nohkan and shinobue wood flutes and Robinson keys, marimba and digital effects.

All of which means that the quartet has the sonic range of a much bigger ensemble, and the first set is largely centred on the richness of textures that arises from the careful deployment of assembled resources. Although Thomas’ string plucking gives the shifting canvas of sounds a rhythmic drive that is reinforced by Biswas’ tablas, moments of great beauty come from long held ascending single notes, particularly when Watanabe’s piercingly sharp pitches are sensitively cushioned by synthesizer chords coming from both sides of the room.

The impression of stereo lift-off is both unsettling and exhilarating. In contrast, the gurgled beats triggered by Thomas introduce an altogether more danceable energy into the room as some of the lines have a lopsided latin flavour. While there are more percussive responses from Biswas the music stays interesting precisely because not everybody sees this as the ‘hands in the air’ techno moment. Robinson, in particular, remains admirably restrained, throwing minimal flashes of marimba into the equation when one might expect a player of his ability to be more expansive. The understatement works.

Nonetheless the ‘groove’ climax does arrive, and, subversively, it is after the players have switched off the programming. Joined in the second set by another special guest, trombonist John Harborne, the ensemble probes patiently at the fragment of a phrase that gradually curls out into a rhythm, and with great stealth, Robinson sneaks in a hypnotic staccato bass line on the giant thumb piano on which he is perched. As we know, there was once a dance called the ‘Black Bottom’.

– Kevin Le Gendre    

– Photos © Roger Thomas