Orphy Robinson interview by Stewart Smith
Vibraphonist and multi-instrumentalist Orphy Robinson’s musical adventures have taken in jazz, free improv, Brit-funk, reggae, albums for Blue Note, a reworking of A Love Supreme, and collaborations with Robert Wyatt, Nigel Kennedy, Don Cherry, Hieroglyphic Being and many others.
As Black Top, Orphy Robinson and pianist Pat Thomas have created a collaborative platform for exploring the intersection of jazz, free improvisation, electronics and African-Caribbean diasporic influences. Their 2014 album with saxophonist Steve Williamson, #1, is one of the most exciting British debuts of recent years, tapping into Afrofuturist and African-Caribbean currents while drawing on its makers’ experience working across numerous genres.
As he reveals below, there’s plenty more Black Top music in the can, which will be released in due course. They play on Friday evening at Counterflows, with special guest Ryan Sawyer on drums.
You’re best known for vibraphone and marimba, but I understand you started out on xylophone. What attracted you to these instruments?
I think at first it was the obvious connection between Piano and Percussion on vibraphone and marimba. I grew up learning Pipe Band drumming, so a by-product of that was that my rudiments were pretty good. I had a teacher that would have you practicing around a table with other drummers and it wasn’t until you could execute properly whatever rudiment or drumming pattern that was being taught at the time, that you would be allowed to play them on a snare drum!
Obviously being a young kid you want to hit things and make noise, I mean if you can’t do it then when can you? Anyway, at the same time my parents had paid for me to have piano lessons at school. I hardly ever went to the lessons but instead, me being a bit of tearaway as a youngster, I would spend the money on sweets at the local tuck shop and then make up something on the upright piano when I got home to give the impression that the lessons were going well!
Funnily enough, I should tell you about the outcome. Many years later as an adult, after I had been gigging quite a bit, one day my father came to a gig and when I asked him afterwards what he thought of the gig he replied with a smile on his face, ‘Well at least now you’ve moved on a bit from that racket you used to try and fool us with on the piano at home,’ adding. ‘You think we don’t know music? We come from Jamaica, we must know something!’ You can imagine how embarrassed I was!
My initial interest in the xylophone and glockenspiels and other instruments in the percussion family came about through being a nosey kid. I was fortunate to be around a great bunch of talented local kids in the local youth marching band. Not only were they one of the best in the UK, winning competitions all over the country, but away from those competitions it was also pretty competitive between us, which encouraged you to learn ever more difficult and technically challenging things on the instruments. The vibraphone came about through going out to clubs around my late teens and hearing Roy Ayers on a record. I was hooked immediately. It was the same thing with the marimba after hearing Roy Ayers on his Africa Centre Of The World album. Then after that it was hearing Bobby Hutcherson play them on some albums, after that there was really no going back.
Another big instrument for you is the steel pan, which I first heard you playing on Robert Wyatt’s wonderful album Comicopera. You’re known for taking quite an experimental approach to it.
The steel pan came about through a composing commission I received in Derby to write for a school steel pan orchestra. Up to that point I was curious about pans but not attracted to their standard repertoire. I had however been a regular at the Notting Hill Carnival each year. The Panorama warm up the night before the competition was always a good pace to hang out and catch the real vibe of carnival. As a spectator I was usually positioned around the Mangrove Café area where the atmosphere was always brilliant. For the commission I had decided to listen to as much steel pan music as possible and then ignore it all and just do my own thing. However during the many rehearsals with the Derby School Pan Orchestra I started to enjoy playing around with a tenor pan and soon realised that I was beginning to be attracted to its amazing rich overtones and at the same time I also wondered about the possibilities of putting a steel pan through numerous FX pedals and filters. After the actual concert I decided to take things further and purchase one. I bought another pan a couple of years later with a slightly different layout and tuning. I started experimenting straight away and fortunately was allowed to include a pan in my set up on the many different Improv gigs that I was now doing.
You came up through Brit funk, but what got you into free jazz? I remember you saying that seeing Art Ensemble and Sun Ra in the ’80s was pretty mind blowing.
I have been lucky to have an interesting musical life moving between many different styles. Starting with the Brit funk band Savanna where I was a founding member. We had a couple of hits and developed a very good reputation in that scene which led to me getting sessions with a lot of the leading bands and artists in the Brit funk genre [That’s Orphy on Imagination’s 1981 hit ‘In And Out Of Love’]. Funnily enough when I went to Japan the first time with Courtney Pine in the 1980s, I was astonished to find that some of the journalists were more interested in talking about those bands than what I was currently doing. Anyway after moving over to straight ahead bands like Courtney Pine and Andy Sheppard in the mid 1980s I started to hang out with one of my mentors from my early days of learning to play. The trumpet player Claude Deppa had always encouraged me to get involved in free jazz, free improv etc. introducing me to John Stevens, Lol Coxhill etc. However touring with Courtney I was lucky enough to see many such artists like Art Ensemble and Sun Ra which totally turned me around to approaching improvisation in a different way but also to listening to music with a much freer approach.
I came across a clip on YouTube of you playing with Don Cherry. What a dream! What was it like working with him?
That was fun and came about through my band at the time and Django Bates’ Human Chain band being invited to do a pilot show for a new Jazz Programme on the BBC. The idea was that each band did a set of their music and then the leaders of the two bands play a duet together. Which was okay but I remember us really pissing off the BBC programme producer who wanted to suggest to us what we should play together as an improvisation!!! He suggested we play a tune, ‘Summertime’. I remember us both not liking that idea so pretending that we hadn’t really heard of that tune before! And proceeding to do our own thing! Anyway the pilot worked out and the series was commissioned. The organisers then approached each artist with some names of various artists and I chose Don Cherry. Fortunately he was into the idea as well and we played that improvisation that is up online. That clip has been great for me over the years, as it’s now a fairly well known one with lots of hits. He was great to meet and really into doing something else in the future but unfortunately he is no longer with us.
So to jump forward to the present day, could you tell us about the Black Top project and the concept of Archaic Nubian music?
Pat [Thomas] and myself have worked and toured together in many different projects since meeting on a Butch Morris tour. We thought it could be good to collaborate and create a new sounding duet with guests using technology and music soundscapes both contemporary and vintage but most of all by delving into our Caribbean background and experimenting with influences from Black music. For both of us our first experience of experimental electronic music was Jamaican Dub from Lee Scratch Perry, King Tubby etc. so the 1970s when the mixes were done in the moment and the equipment was made to order. As Perry would say, ‘Everything starts from Scratch’.
Black Top has involved quite a range of collaborators. Steve Williamson has obviously been key, but you’ve also worked with Shabaka Hutchings, and Ornette Coleman bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma…
Steve I obviously knew from our shared experience of the Jazz Warriors in the 1980s. For me he has always been an incredibly intense and thoughtful musician. He totally got the idea and sound of Black Top from the start and we were lucky to catch him and record with him for the first Black Top album. Black Top meeting and playing with Jamaaladeen Tacuma was really an exciting meeting of like-minded people. We had a two-day residency at Café Oto and our other guests Mark Mondesir and the astonishing harmonica player Philip Achille all contributed to something special. The results will hopefully be heard on an album at some stage. We have been fortunate to have some fantastic guests like Henry Grimes and Marshall Allen, Louis Moholo Moholo, Marco Eneidi, Cleveland Watkiss, Byron Wallen and from China, Beibei Wang, so there is a lot of material waiting to come out on disc or download in the future. Currently we have the new album out with our special guest Evan Parker who has been a great inspiration to us both over the years.
You’ve got Ryan Sawyer from Green Dome joining you in Glasgow. Are you familiar with his work?
Yes I have been having a good listen recently and I am really looking forward to meeting and playing together at the festival.
I understand you’re bringing the Xylosynth along. What kind of possibilities does it offer?
The Xylosynth is Midi and sub etc. and allows me to move into the digital world of sound in a sensible way. The instrument is made by an English company in Leicester and is the best Midi instrument that I have ever played. I used to have one from another company but it was flaky and unfortunately a budget airline destroyed that. I was on tour with Nigel Kennedy doing his new arrangements of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons where he encouraged the use of technology and experimentation with improv alongside the marimba and vibraphone, so I thought I would try out a Xylosynth and was hooked immediately. It’s great being able to speak directly to the owner and the Wernick design team of the instrument if you need anything done.
A live recording of your New Year’s Day session with Jamal Moss and Mark Sanders has just come out on download. Can you tell me a bit about that session, whether you had any desired outcomes and how you processed some of the sounds?
That was fun and recorded at Café Oto on New Year’s Day. Jamal was up for getting the concert recorded after we had played together in the Soundcheck. It was easy to work as a team because Mark Saunders and myself have shared many stages since the 1980s, so we already know each other and can quickly pick up and navigate through different sound combinations and function as a solid rhythm section quickly. Everything was processed in the moment and we just let the sounds lead the way with no predetermined routes. Really enjoyed listening back and glad we recorded it.
There’s been a renewed interest in Afro-Futurism. Do you see projects like Black Top or your session with Jamal Moss as part of that?
Well we are willing to rule everything in and nothing out when you are in the moment. I think its something that’s in the air at the moment so there will be those comparisons made. However we feel Black Top can be everything and nothing all at the same time.
Finally, unless I’m mistaken it’s been a while since you last played up here.
I know I always love the spirit of the audiences in Glasgow. It’s been ages since I was last there and I only wish there could be more opportunities to get up to Glasgow in the near future.