Black Top burn up with Jamaaladeen Tacuma at EFG London Jazz Festival


I would have been lying if I’d said I was in the mood for this. It had been a long day of coffee-fuelled laptop drudgery and, as much as I love free jazz, the last thing I wanted was to sit through a night of challenging improvised music in deepest darkest Dalston. But, come 11 o’clock I was willing it not to end.

An opening set from tenor saxophonist Seymour Wright and drummer Paul Abbott, collectively known as Xomaltesc Tbobhni, made for a mesmerising start. Facing one another across a darkened stage, they unleashed a relentless barrage of sound. A subtly-shifting acoustic loop of saxophone honks, screeches and whirring, machine-like noises that meshed with thrashing cymbal work and loose tom-tom rolls, it could have been a sonic sketch of some harrowing, mechanised dystopia.

Black Top, appearing with special guests Philip Achille on harmonica and Jamaaladeen Tacuma (a former member of Ornette Coleman's Prime Time) on bass guitar, took a little longer to find their stride. Five minutes in and I could feel my scepticism beginning to return, but their improvisation quickly gathered pace. Switching between iPad, synthesizer and piano, Pat Thomas stirred up a bubbling broth of electronic noise, adding scampering lines and subversive, hamfisted cluster chords. Orphy Robinson responded with chirpy laptop beats, distorted vocal samples and furious bursts of Xylosynth, while Achille offered wistful melodies, impassioned wails and snaking, chromatic lines.

Dressed in a patterned silk jacket and an orange scarf, Tacuma was at the heart of it all, busting out Jaco-esque bass licks and linking up with Achille on improvised melodies and broken funk grooves. He was instrumental in the sweeping builds and sudden drops in intensity that provided many of the highlights of the set and it was he who led the adrenaline-fuelled handshakes after a final Xylosynth flurry from Robinson brought things to a close.

As he did so, the house erupted into whistles and cheers and I was cheering along with them. This is the sort of improvised music that sucks you in and disarms your scepticism. Go in the foulest of moods and at your most difficult to impress and you’ll come out a delirious evangelist.

– Thomas Rees