Blacktop

#One
Babel Label BDV 14128

Three musicians playing together don’t necessarily constitute a trio. This live CD confirms that. For no matter how sophisticated some of the improvisatory techniques used here – and many sounds on these three tracks are definitely arresting – the billing of the Blacktop duo plus special guest is convincingly correct. High quality on an individual basis, the three players work never jells into a satisfying three-way dialogue.

The reason is simple. Even this early in the partnership of marimba player Orphy Robinson and keyboardist Pat Thomas their shared expertise in astute free music has forged a common bond. Meanwhile guest Steve Williamson, although a constantly employed saxophonist, still seems to take his cues from more popular music. In other words Williamson, who has backed the likes of Courtney Pine and Iain Ballamy while searching for his own jazz-funk fusion, is committed to entertainment. The others, whose collaborators have included players who probe sound’s farthest reaches such as Derek Bailey, Lol Coxhill, Don Cherry and Henry Threadgill, try more complex strategies to reach more profound goals.

On those sequences when Thomas sticks to acoustic piano and Robinson to expected marimba tones, the resulting sounds meshed with Williamson’s soprano or tenor saxophone timbres are as if the bassist and drummer hadn’t made those Modern Jazz Quartet dates at the Music Inn with Jimmy Giuffre or Sonny Rollins. However Thomas’ keyboard attack is more rugged than John Lewis’ and Robinson circumvents the elegance often present in Milt Jackson’s soloing. Nevertheless despite Robinson outlining the gentle theme, seconded by Williamson’s expressive soprano lines on “There Goes the Neighbourhood”, triggered dub-like electronic oscillations from Thomas move the piece out of the Berkshires to Brighton; and Thomas further refines the equation with dynamic keyboard clashes. The short “Archaic Nubian StepDub” further isolates Williamson’s weaknesses, with his too smooth riffs keeping pace with the thumping dance beat, but in a fashion reminiscent of a street corner saxophonist playing over a boom box rhythm.

On the other hand expectations are exceeded in the extended “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. On tenor saxophone Williamson’s exposition is more powerful and by the end, his bent note and harsh squeaks begin to approximate the seemingly unruffled timbral emphasis the others, especially Thomas, exhibits. His kinetic piano arpeggios are as expressive as they are expeditious, while his relaxed comping meshes perfectly with Robinson’s chromatic beats. At last the three reach a climax of near ecstasy, with the final release never negating the complexity of their achievement.

More than 2½ years have passed since this CD was recorded. While #One is a worthy introduction, newer sessions will show how and if Thomas-Robinson have solidified their duo and whether Williamson and/or other special guests may have risen to the challenges the two pose.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. There Goes the Neighbourhood 2. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner 3. Archaic Nubian StepDub

Personnel: Steve Williamson (tenor and soprano saxophones); Pat Thomas (keyboards, piano, and computer beats)and Orphy Robinson (marimba)