Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker


Pat Thomas                                                                           Nadjib Le Fleurier © Sisters Publishing


Pat Thomas is one of many serious people who have real problems with the prevailing jazz narrative. For the Oxford-based improviser, the root of the problem is its still-dominant Eurocentrism, reinforced by a succession of influencers from Gunther Schuller to Alyn Shipton. Despite their praise of the African Americans central to the codified New Orleans creation myth, Thomas contends that they ignore the cultural impact of African Muslims and Arabic speakers, beginning in the colonial period on the Atlantic coast. For more than twenty years, Thomas’ writings and interviews have detailed how they introduced a wealth of scalar, intervallic, and polyphonic characteristics that are now embedded in the African American DNA of the music. More tellingly, Thomas points to how the Arabic origin of “jass” has been routinely overlooked; consequential given its connotations of espionage, enquiry and scrutiny, indicating a subversive, even rebellious agenda. Much is made of call and response in African music and its iterations in jazz; understanding the Arabic precursor sharpens the point of the call. Even though Thomas infrequently ventures towards its frontiers, jazz as a pinnacle of diasporic art does matter to the second-generation black Brit.

However, it was not jazz that led Thomas to ask for piano lessons at 7 – it was seeing Liberace on television. At first, he wondered why all pianos weren’t white. Thomas heard everything during his formative years; while his Antiguan parents loved calypso, they listened to everything from Charley Pride to Lee “Scratch” Perry. Even now, when Thomas takes his mother home during the winter months, he hears jazz as much as soca. He was a teenager when his interest in jazz grew; again, television played a role, in this case Oscar Peterson’s ‘70s BBC television series (which improbably included Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman). But jazz was not Thomas’ sole interest, as he played reggae, calypso and boogie-woogie locally; he and his brothers named their funk unit M4 after the highway near Oxford. As he developed musically, Thomas experienced racial discrimination by potential employers (whose initial, application-based enthusiasm evaporated when he appeared for interviews); earned a degree in psychology from the Open University (a legacy of the Harold Wilson years); and embraced Sufism – additional potent ingredients for a critical sensibility.

By the early 1980s, Thomas was performing with Oxford improvisers like Ian McLaughlin (a name that scrambles Google’s big brain and spew links for Ian McLagan and John McLaughlin), and Ghosts with Pete McPhail and Matt Lewis. Thomas’ early use of effects boxes and keyboards, inspired by Aswad and Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi Sextet, morphed into an audacious, irreverent approach, particularly when deploying samples of tv programs and commercials that he stockpiled on cassettes – a Pepsi campaign was particularly fruitful for him. As is often the case in the germinal days of a grassroots movement, the improvisers’ early efforts were met with crickets. “Despite its status as an educational brand name in the culture industry,” wrote Malcolm Atkins in his 2010 notes for 4 Compositions for Orchestra (FMR) “Oxford is known to local artists and musicians for the institutional malaise that denies support for any local work.” Organizing mid-decade as the Oxford Improvisers Co-op, Thomas and his colleagues drove its tap root sufficiently deep to grow the community, bring in Derek Bailey, Tony Oxley and other luminaries, and, by ‘88, successfully apply for grant funding, with Thomas receiving an Arts Council Jazz Bursary to compose electroacoustic works.

Premiered at the Crawley Outside-In Festival of new music in 1989 – and issued as Monads (Reel Estate) – Thomas’ music signaled an emergent wave of British electroacoustic improvisation, its palette considerably different from both the earnest scrapes, pings and buzzes created by contact mics, magnetic pickups and filters prevalent in the ‘60s, and the repurposed low-end keyboards, toys and gadgets introduced in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The temperament of the music was also quite distinct from that of the downtown New York scene, which was frequently too hip for its own good. There’s an uninhibited, even unhinged quality to the music – which is not to say that it is, in any way, lacking in form or substance. Each piece features pointedly contrasting instrumentation: a duo of McPhail, playing a WX7 wind synthesizer, and turntablist Neil Palmer; Geoff Searle’s drum machines and Lewis and Roger Turner’s kits; Phil Minton, trumpeter Jon Corbett, and Thomas’ computer. The resulting ricochets, glancing blows, and head-on collisions are bracing; particularly in Minton, Corbett and Thomas’ exchanges, there’s a madcap glee. Monads remains remarkably refreshing after 30 years, in addition to it being an important snapshot of how turntables, computers, programmable keyboards, and sundry devices were converging in the late 1980s to reshape improvised music in the UK.

Although Thomas’ music was, in all probability, ignored by the powers that be in Oxford, there was one influencer paying attention – Derek Bailey. The guitarist invited Thomas to participate in Company Week in both 1990 and ‘91; the three Incus CDs ensuing from the latter conclave a heady endorsement of Thomas to a wider audience. The ‘91 edition of Company exemplified the factional tensions Bailey seemed to have delighted in when drawing up his rosters, pitting the assaultive punk and metal informed energies of, respectively, John Zorn and Buckethead, against cosmopolitans Alexander Balanescu, Vanessa Mackness and Yves Robert. With Paul Lovens and Paul Rogers representing the more established networks of European improvised music, the virtually unknown Thomas was the true wildcard.

“Bailey likes percussive accompanists, thrives on speed and sudden change, and Thomas was just the ticket,” assessed Ben Watson in his commentary on the ‘91 Company Week in Derek Bailey and the story of free improvisation (Verso). But, if this is what Bailey was seeking – “accompanist” being a strange descriptor, given the guitarist’s adamant egalitarianism – he got something quite different throughout the five-day meeting, beginning with his duet with Thomas included on volume 1. Instead of the shrieking intensities that Zorn and Buckethead preferred, Thomas created a peaceable environment populated with chirping birds, the flow of sounds akin to those favored by Richard Teitelbaum and others. This approach disarmed Bailey, who considerably dialed down his harmonics, scrapings, and monosyllables, to mesh with Thomas. Something similar occurred in Thomas’ trio with Mackness and Zorn, included on volume 2, in which Thomas’ sounds play a more overtly complementary role to the vocalist’s ethereal, way off-mic utterances, coaxing Zorn’s most restrained playing on the three discs. Thomas also sparred forcefully, evidenced by a quartet with Bailey, Buckethead, and Zorn included on volume 1; but, the takeaway from Company Week ‘91 was that Thomas was an unpredictable, multi-faceted improviser.

Bailey was also pivotal in elevating Thomas’ profile when he persuaded Oxley to include Thomas in the drummer’s early ‘90s quartet, which hardened the early consensus that Thomas was firmly aligned with the Joseph Holbrooke alumni’s ideological adherence to non-idiomatic improvisation. However, Oxley’s egalitarianism had similar unintended consequences to Bailey’s during Company ‘91, in that, when left to his own devices, Thomas strayed from the party line. A case in point is Thomas’ duet with sampler Matt Wand on Tony Oxley Derek Bailey Quartet (Jazzwerkstatt; 2008). Thomas’ piano has the lachrymose blue hues of Ellington-Strayhorn, which Wand enveloped with high-contrast synthetic sounds. Additionally, Thomas’ piano solo on The Enchanted Messenger (Soul Note), the ‘94 JazzFest Berlin performance by Oxley’s Celebration Orchestra, is cited by annotator Ben Young as “the sole passage in which tertian harmony has any structural significance.”

Playing with Oxley’s quartet and orchestra raised Thomas’ stock among the cognoscenti; however, in 1993, Thomas recorded an album and published an article that, arguably, contributed more to delineating an aesthetic space reflective of his widely diverse interests and influences. The album documented his duo with Lol Coxhill. The soprano saxophonist is often pigeonholed as a free improviser; doing so minimizes, if not ignores, what made Coxhill, as Ellington said of Louis Armstrong, the onliest: his humor. Coxhill’s humor extended beyond being one of the funnier figures on the scene – which was why he was often enlisted as a compere at festivals – to the simple virtue of being open to play anything, making him a great counterpart for Thomas.

“Lol was one of my mentors,” Thomas recently related. “He was a true musical giant, instantly recognizable, who covered all musical bases. He had a tremendous influence on my approach to improvising, I remember, when he asked me if I would be interested in playing in a duo with him, I couldn’t speak for a day, out of shock, and respect, because he was one of my musical heroes He was too humble for his own good, and not given his due respect in his own country; but, he had the respect of all players from Dave Green, the great British bassist, Charles Haywood and of course Anthony Braxton, who acknowledges Lol as one of the pioneers of solo saxophone. We played a lot of great gigs, and Lol gave me many tips on how to survive.

“We had played a duo gig at the Red Rose and a woman who worked in a fancy restaurant said she wanted to book us. As it got closer to the date, Lol rang me and told me to bring my Blue Book. When I was growing up, the Real Book wasn’t available, so you would learn the changes and write them out by hand. I had them in a Blue Book for jazz gigs. Lol with his great experience realized that we might need a Plan B, so on the night we did the first set totally improvised; but the poor woman who had booked us looked really worried. She had just been told by the management that if we played a second set like that she would be sacked! So, Lol went into “Stella by Starlight” and she kept her job.”

Coxhill’s humor and willingness to dive – no, cannonball – into jazz literature is gloriously on display on the duo’s recordings, which are largely driven by Thomas’ deliciously cognitive dissonance-inducing arrangements. Given Coxhill’s idiomatic fluency, it is not surprising that the duo was first tapped to interpret Sidney Bechet’s “Petite Fleur” for the Hal Wilneresque tribute, Vol pour Sidney (aller) (Nato). For his part, Coxhill plays it straight, applying a cooing tone to the exotic theme and delivering a relaxed solo. Instead of genre-appropriate accompaniment, Thomas, inspired by Soul II Soul’s “Keep on Moving,” lays down a plush groove that pumps the undulating rhythms. However, upon closer inspection, the velvet is revealed to be studded with whirs, buzzes and clangs alien to club music.

A similar mash opens their ‘93 studio album, Halim (Nato). Thomas drives “That Old Black Magic” with a bass line that will rattle the china, while Coxhill manages to subvert the standardized razzmatazz of the tune with wistfulness. With the theme dispensed with, Coxhill spools out lines that stretch the harmonic fabric, which Thomas’ piano punctuates with jaunty jabs and spatters. It is here that the conceit takes a back seat to the duo’s strengths as improvisers; even though each succeeding track on the album is predicated on smart settings – with several benefiting, like the jolly “King Edward’s Mambo,” from a dash of cheek – Coxhill and Thomas create moments where context is irrelevant. Coxhill easily shed the soprano saxophone’s predominately avant-garde history over the last half-century (Kenny G notwithstanding). Thomas’ burden is not to be underestimated when he takes on sub-genres like soul jazz organ on ”Updown Sidney,” where he applies the requisite grease, but avoids clichés.

There is a specific resonance to the title of the album at this point in Thomas’ work. The Arabic “Halim” – and its alternative spelling, “Haleem” – has two seemingly incongruent applications. The latter spelling commonly identifies a stew of meat, grains, and lentils, popular throughout the Muslim world. The former is more widely used as a masculine given name (although Haleem is used for these purposes in South Asia), signifying a long list of godly virtues – “al-Halim” being one of at least 99 names for Allah. A stew is an apt metaphor for the duo’s work; godliness is a stretch. However, articulating a cultural mix is not at odds with an Islamcentric view of music history; they are, in fact, two sides of the same coin, which Thomas details in his 1993 article, “Islam’s contribution to Jazz & Improvised musics” in Rubberneck.

Thomas’ etymological case does more than debunk the prevailing jazz narrative. He makes a larger brief that overshadows his detailing of the evolution of instruments and the migration of practices, one that goes to the values African Muslims and Arabic speakers contributed to African American culture, generally, as well as jazz culture. In addition to “jass,” Thomas explains the origins of “jam” and even “hey.” For jazz musicians, the jam session is the traditional incubator of ideas, a forum that invites both competition and comradery. Accordingly, “jam” translates from the Arabic as gatherings, connoting relaxation and union. “Hey” is now an all-purpose exclamation, often shouted by singers like James Brown to draw attention to the immediate musical moment. It is derived from the Arabic “hayy,” its meaning circumscribing life, lust, and energy. When considered together, these three Arabic words create a powerful dynamic of celebratory and investigatory energies, one that is traceable throughout jazz history. Thomas demonstrates solid scholarship when he cites the Sufi influence on everything from the appearance of syncopated rhythms in the music of 9th century Spain, to the genesis of Hindustani music in the 13th and 14th centuries; but, it is the nucleus of values represented by three Arabic words that connects this long tradition to his sensibility as an artist.

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Four years later, Thomas made another album and wrote another text that mirror the reverberations created by Halim and “Islam’s contribution to Jazz & Improvised musics.” Appearing in the “My Favourite Ethnic Recording” column of Resonance, the magazine published by the London Musicians Collective, Thomas discusses Pakistan. Ali Wali. 3 raga (Opus 111), an album by Ustad Gulum Hassan Shagan, a venerated singer in the Khayal tradition of classical Hindustani ragas. Accompanied only by a secondary voice and tambura, Shagan’s three-octave range and singular improvisational gifts transfixed listeners. To frame his discussion of the music, Thomas revisits the Sufis’ seminal role in Hindustani music and the legacy of centuries handed down to Shagan through his father, also a renowned singer. While Thomas praises Shagan’s embellishments, intervallic leaps, and ability to seemingly suspend time – giving new meaning to “what we in the West call Rubato” – he is quick to point out that Shagan’s music is rooted in his Islamic faith. In this regard, Thomas makes a salient point about Shagan that also applies to himself: “For Ustad Gulam Shagan there is no separation between the sacred and the mundane.”

“Mundane” is frequently misused as a synonym for the tedious and tiresome, when it simply means “of this world.” Or the street. In the wake of Thatcher in 1992, the street birthed Jungle – appropriately in a London club called Rage – a genre of electronic music built upon Mach speed beats, dub bass lines, and a thick weave of samples, loops, and effects. It was almost instantly embraced by working class black youths, many of whom, like Thomas, grew up on reggae and dub. Within two years, Jungle tracks were charting in the UK. With its rapid ascent, Jungle spun off sub-genres with comparable speed, the emergence of ragga, ambient, and darkcore, upping the artistic ante by mid-decade. Jungle was on the verge of another sharp stylistic turn in ‘97 when Thomas recorded new jazz jungle: Remembering (New Jazz).

“That was my first solo album,” Thomas recently said. “My aim was to combine my interest in Jungle, Webern, improvised music and jazz. I recorded two pieces a session over five weeks. I was also involved in a local soul rap collective called Tones of Life, compromised of some of the best vocalists, rappers and musicians in Oxford. Tones was working on their debut album, and in between, I could work on my solo project. I spent months checking out all the various Jungle records before putting the pieces together. Like other improvisers, I found Jungle with its emphasis on sounds rather than notes, and eschewing conventional song form, a breath of fresh air. I wanted to use some of essential traits of Jungle – super fast tempos, sonic extremes, very low sub-bass, as well as sirens, I also used some twelve-tone tone rows derived from Webern, and some concepts from free jazz and freely improvised music. I also made a conscious decision that the pieces were no longer than six minutes.”

Thomas’ embroidery of sounds is captivating, the pace is invigorating, and the appropriations of methods – be it Webern’s or Augustus Pablo’s – are subtle, smart and occasionally mischievous. Despite its experimental elements, however, new jazz jungle: Remembering is a total immersion in Jungle; it is of the world, though a world apart from the compounding of genres in his work with Coxhill. Thomas’ artful approach to Jungle and other forms of contemporary black music contributes mightily to his vitality as a free improviser. His music is not simply of the world, but multiple worlds. This can generally be said of free improvisers, in that they arrived at improvised music after studying, performing, and/or composing in other genres.

Improvising groups, then, can be Venn diagrammed, the core overlapping area representing improvised music, and the outlying areas signifying individual formative endeavors. Take Thomas’ late ‘90s quartet, Scatter: in addition to playing jazz, Phil Minton sang with Swedish pop groups in the 1960s; Dave Tucker came up in the late ‘70s Manchester post-punk scene; and Roger Turner worked with Ghanaian drum ensembles and experimental theater groups in the ‘60s – a diverse array of outliers. By the turn of the century, however, successive generations of improvisers had emerged in London, and the outlying areas of the Venn diagrams within a self-identified group were increasingly likely to reflect backgrounds in contemporary music, electronic music, or non-Western traditions – and Thomas, turning 40 in 2000, was becoming a sought-after veteran.

An up-and-coming trombonist in her late 20s, Gail Brand (who now goes by Sarah Gail Brand) enlisted Thomas for Lunge in the late ‘90s, a quartet rounded out by drummer Mark Sanders, who would soon be ubiquitous on the London scene, and Phil Durrant, a violinist who was fast becoming a specialist in computer-generated music and computer interactivity with acoustic instruments. Their two albums – Braced & Framed (Acta; 1999) and Strong Language (Emanem; 2002) – have a turning-of-the-page (if not Millennium-induced) resolve, reflecting seemingly disparate qualities: an athleticism that often bordered on the pugilistic; and acute attention to minute details, particularly granular electronic textures. Had Brand not decamped to the Bay Area for several years in the mid-2000s – and then pursued a practice and a PhD in Music Therapy upon her return to the UK –  Lunge may well have been a prominent feature in the landscape of improvised music 20 years into the 21st century.

The same cannot necessarily be said of Norwegian initiatives like Hiss (a quartet with guitarist Ivar Grydeland, bassist Tonny Kluften, and percussionist Ingar Zach) and No Spaghetti Edition (a larger pool anchored by Thomas’ Hiss colleagues), their respective merits notwithstanding. Most improvising groups come and go with only a momentary impact; many don’t play a second gig, let alone stay together long enough to issue a CD. One-offs comprise the innumerable gaps in any history of improvised music. Undoubtedly, Thomas played his share of one-offs in this period surrounding the Millennium; it is therefore necessary to find a strand in the record that doesn’t just speak to his materials and methods, but to his intents and purposes as well.

Thomas’ titles during these years provide that strand, as they represented a new iteration of the tradition of titling improvised music recordings in the UK. When considered chronologically, titles of enduring recordings form a quasi-dialectic arc, initiated by Spontaneous Music Ensemble’s 1966 debut, Challenge (Emanem), an implicit recognition of their outsider status, their defiance of norms, and their idealism. By 1968, as psychedelia peaked in mainstream culture, the titles became evocative, even exotic: at one end of the spectrum was SME’s Karyobin (Emanem), subtitled are the imaginary birds said to live in paradise; at the other was AMM’s The Crypt (Matchless). Obscurantism began to flourish in the early 1970s. In 1971, Tony Oxley turned to New Testament-era Greek for Ichnos (RCA), while Evan Parker’s The Topography of the Lungs (psi) was inspired by anatomical charts. The so-called second generation upended this trajectory in the second half of the 1970s with politically incorrect titles like “European improvised music sho’ ‘nuff turns me on” from Tea Time, the 1975 Incus LP by Steve Beresford, John Russell, Nigel Coombes, Gary Todd and Dave Solomon. Since then, titles tended to be swipes against the quotidian, found text fragments, or “Improvisation” and a number.

Beginning with Nur (Emanem), his 1999 solo piano concert recording, Thomas used Arabic words for his titles; not because they roll mellifluously off the tongue, but because they convey spiritual essentials, inspired on this occasion by Ramadan, the month of fasting-fueled reflection. As he explained in his booklet notes, “Nur” means “light, a very intense light that illuminates everything,” while “Mubarak” identifies “a very blessed person or occasion which the month of Ramadan is.” For Zahir (Rossbin), his 2003 album with Hiss, Thomas uses two related terms in Sufism: “Zahir,” referencing an individual’s action, and “Batin,” indicating the intention in one’s heart. On a larger scale, the former refers to the world of bodies, while the latter refers to the world of souls. “Wazifa,” which literally means assignment, duty or daily ration, is employed with both Hiss (albeit using the alternate spelling, “Wazifah”) and as the title of a 2009 concert recording with Raymond Strid and Clayton Thomas, issued on psi. In 2011, Thomas shifted focus; instead of vocabulary naming virtues and responsibilities, he turned to a 9th century Persian mathematician and astronomer for inspiration for a solo piano album, resulting in al-Khwarizmi Variations (Fataka). Islam and algebra; two modalities of truth; one sacred and one of the world.

The cover may not say much about a book or an album, but a title can say all you need to know.

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Thomas had been aware of Orphy Robinson since the heyday of The Jazz Warriors, the ‘80s big band that was a who’s who of rising black jazz artists in the UK – and darlings of the homers in the British jazz press. In the ‘90s, the vibraphonist recorded accessible albums for EMI/Blue Note, scored television series and films, and played in Warriors-affiliated groups like Jazz Jamaica All Stars, who fused jazz, reggae, ska, and Motown. Thomas and Robinson began general discussions about a partnership when they toured in Lawrence “Butch” Morris’ London Skyscraper orchestra in 1997; a thread they occasionally continued as they crossed paths in London Improvisers Orchestra and elsewhere during the early 2000s. Soon after the LIO template for large group work migrated to Oxford in 2005 with the inception of Oxford Improvisers Orchestra, Thomas invited Robinson and other guest artists from diverse musical traditions to participate in the creation of four improvised concerti with OIO for the 2007 Cohesion Festival, a series of discussions and events with a pointedly cross-cultural agenda. The resulting CD – 4 compositions for orchestra (FMR) – was curiously overlooked; if was reviewed at all, it slipped through the fine filter of Jazzinstitut Darmstadt’s bibliographic data base.

It is noteworthy that not only did Robinson perform on steel pans, but that that he was featured with Tunde Jegede’s kora and Ahmed Abdul Rahman’s erhu on “Composition 786,” structured by Thomas to allow “instruments not usually found in the Western Orchestra ... to be themselves.”  The piece works simply because Robinson, Jegede, and Rahman are unencumbered by culturally specific settings – Robinson is not representing the Caribbean, per se, nor are Jegede and Rahman cut-outs of their communities. All they needed to do was improvise; it was up to Thomas to create the conditions to hear these instruments anew. He did so by matching soloists with sub-sections of the orchestra – reeds and brass; strings; and percussion – and having keen timing when introducing orchestral elements. By creating a sensitive, culturally neutral space, “Composition 786” flipped a decades-old script favored by jazz composers – fabricating a fusion – suggesting that fusion is a dated 20th century concept, and that cohesion is arguably better suited for the 21st. The former presumes a melting pot; the latter pluralism, the participants equals.

The other pieces are exquisitely complementary. On the evocative “Tales,” Thomas uses the counterpoint between Miles Doubleday’s narration of Mulla Nasruddin stories and Vida Kashizadeh’s improvised singing to build a textural backdrop initially with percussion, then sifting in materials from the orchestra, all while preserving the primacy of the texts. An electrifying, ultimately atomizing reimaging of “Cherokee,” “Shock Tactics” features furious contributions by, among others, pianist Alexander Hawkins, and saxophonists Steve Williamson and Pete McPhail – it’s enough to make Charlie Barnet’s war bonnet burst into flames. Recognizing the violinist to be one of the under-heralded figures in European improvised music, “Concerto for Philipp Wachsmann” closes the proceedings with an understated elegance, one of the best examples of his effortless virtuosity on disc. On par with the best work of Butch Morris and London Improvisers Orchestra, 4 compositions for orchestra remains Thomas’ most ambitious project to date.

2009 proved to be a pivotal year for Thomas. “My electronic set comprising of various sound modules like the Yamaha FBO1, mini disks, tapes, etc. had ended up being stolen,” he recently recounted. “I had been asked to do a session at Abbey Road Studios, organized by John Coxon with Mark Sanders and [Ishmael] Wadada Leo Smith [Abbey Road Quartet; Treader]. I used a Korg Ms20 emulator and other programs. To my surprise they worked pretty well, the latency problem, which caused delay when playing a midi Keyboard seemed to have been solved.” Thomas continued to refine his kit, using Reaktor on a laptop when he and Robinson, with whom he also worked in Code5ive with Jazz Warrior co-founder Gary Crosby and others, to create a new unit in mid-2011.

While Code5ive sought to extend the Caribbean influence of Joe Harriott and others on jazz in the UK, the aim of Thomas and Robinson’s project was “to incorporate Afro Caribbean and Black British musical concepts in a totally improvised setting without it sounding forced.” A first step for Thomas was sending samples and constructions to Robinson. He had been struggling to come up with a name for the project; nothing generic like Thomas-Robinson, nothing clever. “Then Black Top,” Thomas told Kevin Le Gendre for a 2014 Jazzwise feature. “I thought black top ... black laptop. After we’d done the name we realized the potential impact of people thinking ‘Black’ Top, but if I was gonna go for the Afrocentric thing I would have called Top Black. Black Top, ironically, was just a thing.” Be that as it may, they chose Blacktopia as their Facebook and Twitter handles.

From the outset, Thomas and Robinson decided that they would be a duo-with-guests. Former Jazz Warrior Williamson was tapped for Black Top’s first gig at Café Oto in October; however, Thomas’ mother had taken ill, so he flew to Antigua, missing the gig. Still, news of the project reached Jez Nelson, then host of BBC Radio 3’s Jazz on 3, and producer of the monthly Jazz in the Round series at the Cockpit Theatre, a venue whose long history with jazz and improvised music reaches back to Musicians Cooperative programs in the early 1970s. Nelson booked Black Top for the series’ January 2012 edition. As Nelson often aired excerpts from the series in latter Jazz on 3 episodes, the widely respected Steve Lowe was on site to record Black Top’s set, again with Williamson. The set was released as #ONE in 2014 on Babel, the label administered by Vortex Jazz Club director Oliver Weindling.

It is noteworthy that Robinson played only marimba on #ONE; he had yet to acquire a xylosynth and configure auxiliary electronics. Periodically, Robinson laid down skeletal rhythm figures and chord patterns around which Williamson draped long, knotty post-bop lines, and that provided at least an initial tether for the centrifugal forces of Thomas’ piano and samples-driven keyboards – a mediating role for which the marimba’s buoyant timbre was well suited. More importantly, he had uncanny timing when jettisoning these building-block materials for clusters, labyrinthine lines or, occasionally, silence; sticky materials, though useful for orientation and ignition, can quickly turn into liabilities. Black Top’s ability to leap suddenly and surefootedly into unforeseen soundscapes is vividly on display throughout two lengthy improvisations – piquantly titled “There Goes the Neighbourhood!” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? – joining the traditional articulations of the African Diaspora with Afro-Futurist concepts of Sun Ra, P-Funk, and others. In doing so, their Caribbean axis is diffused; these roots come raucously to the foreground on the encore, “Archaic Nubian Step Dub” (the reversing of “Step” and “Dub” was intentional; it references a friend’s slip of the tongue that stuck).

In retrospect, Black Top’s sonic mass on #ONE is particularly impressive, given that only Thomas deployed samples, creating otherworldliness frequently driven by beats. By the time Nelson brought Black Top into the legendary Studio 3 at the BBC’S history-soaked Maida Vale complex for the concluding episode of a Jazz on 3 series celebrating British jazz in June 2013, Robinson was using a xylosynth and programmable keyboards. Like Thomas and his electronics, unfortunate circumstances prompted Robinson’s acquisition of the digital mallet instrument. As he told Nelson during one of the program’s interview segments, Robinson was touring a new version of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with violinist Nigel Kennedy when his gear was crushed by a cut-rate airline. Not only did Robinson’s palette expand exponentially with the hardware additions, but Thomas also had increased latitude in his choices, enhanced by a new sample with a pedigree. In recognition of the studio’s role in the development of English electronic music, Thomas was able to select a sample from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s library, choosing a space age-signifying clip used in the mid-1960s television series, Tomorrow’s World (whose original theme was a rocketing chart by John Dankworth).

Bringing on Williamson, trumpeter Byron Wallen, and poet HKB Finn, Black Top played three lengthy pieces. Wallen’s ability to triangulate Miles and Lester added another layer of ancient-to-the-future to the proceedings. Like Williamson, Wallen has a fine feel for staying in the mid-ground for minutes at a time, neither riffing rudimentarily nor soloing; but contributing skeletal, iridescent, and occasionally contrary elements to the ensembles. And, Wallen can hold forth, persuasively. Williamson, who had played several Black Top gigs by then, cleared the bar he set on #ONE. Yet, it is Finn who, with an iron-core baritone voice, transforms the music into a larger statement, his three texts affirming deep cultural roots (his being Jamaican) to be the necessary push-back against post-modern dehumanization. Although poet-filmmaker Andrew Ward’s HKB Finn handle was originally inspired by the Mark Twain character in the 1990s, he told Adebimpe Adebamo in a 2016 interview for Omenka that the initials currently stood for “Harness Kinetic Bliss,” which places him in good stead with Heroes Are Gang Leaders, Moor Mother, and others seeking new compounds of message and music.

Throughout the mid-2010s, Black Top expanded its pool of collaborators, regularly holding forth at Café Oto and the Vortex. Thomas recently reflected that the format was “helping the music to stay fresh, and constantly forced us to develop our approaches, especially with electronics, trying to find ways to respond to musical questions posited by our guests, and avoid our own clichés.” Their guests spanned vocalist Maggie Nicols, who was inspired to tap dance mid-set, and electric bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, with whom Black Top raised the roof during the 2014 London Jazz Festival. With each gig being a self-contained project, “evolution” becomes a tricky term.

The scant official record creates a reliance on #TWO, recorded at the Vortex in March 2014 with Evan Parker, to outline a few generalities. One of the cardinal rules of hosting is to first make the guest feel comfortable; Black Top does so brilliantly on “Tourmaline,” opening with soft piano interior and electronics, giving Parker leeway in setting the tone with a breathy tone and fluid lines. Good hosts then lay out an appetizer, something not too heavy, but indicative of what is to come; in this regard, a taste of syncopation goes a long way on “Gold,” entwining piano, bass marimba, and tenor in something resembling a groove – at least for a moment. From there, Black Top brings it on full force, and Parker meets it head on, whether confronting multiple, morphing layers of samples and synthesizers, a frenetically deconstructed calypso, or a soundtrack for a spacewalk. Giving their guests initial space to assert themselves, gradually getting them on board for the ride, and then taking off, is a solid plan, regardless of what the guest brings to the party.

Pegged to the imminent release of #ONE, Kevin Le Gendre’s “New Forms” ran in the June 2014 issue of Jazzwise, which hit the streets just weeks after the Vortex gig. It is noteworthy that Le Gendre mentioned Parker only once, and then in a list of to-date collaborators that included saxophonist Caroline Kraabel and flutist Emi Watanabe (not to be confused with the Olympian ice skater). At that point, #TWO was more than a year away from release; the Vortex gig was one in a fast-growing queue. It took over two years for the Jazz in the Round gig to be issued on CD; but it is contextualized in the article as a new release, a product launch being necessary for mainstream jazz magazines to publish anything of length about innovative music. On the other hand, the UK jazz print and broadcast media are boosters of diversity in British jazz, of which, arguably, there are no better representatives than Robinson and Thomas.

Setting the scene – even describing an artist’s clothing – is the standard opening of feature articles in jazz magazines. Le Gendre’s interview takes place on the piazza of The British Library, with the Shaw Theatre in view. This prompted Robinson – who, like Thomas, wore a dark jacket on this nippy afternoon – to reminisce about playing the venue with the Jazz Warriors, with whom such contrary forces as Wynton Marsalis and Lester Bowie sat in. His initial interest in Mingus’ workshop concepts persisted through the years; he saw Black Top as an extension of them. By the end of the article’s first page, readers unfamiliar with either musician might think Black Top was the latest iteration of contemporary British jazz, rather than subversives.

However, that impression is quickly dashed by a discussion of “their shared interest in the music of the African Diaspora in both arthouse and populist guises.” This gives Thomas the opening to decry the exclusion of dub from discussions of experimental electronic music, and the attribution of innovative techniques to the likes of John Cage rather than jazz innovators like Louis Armstrong. From there, Thomas pivots to what Le Gendre characterizes as “a wider debate on what constitutes the legitimate heritage of jazz [about which] he is happy to fire off his point of view.” Comparing a century-old music like jazz to, for example, the tabla’s half-millennium history, Thomas throws it down: “ ̀Why are people so keen to say there’s a jazz tradition when it’s a new art and there’s so many ways it can go? The only logical thing I can see that it’s to do with marketing and selling. But after one hundred years how can you say that there’s a tradition? One tradition. To say a tradition is this after just one hundred years is insane.’”

One of the trickier gambits in features writing for jazz magazine is the well-crafted parting shot. Le Gendre nails it when he concludes the article with a quote from Robinson about blackness in the UK: “‘You’ll be English when you’re doing good, then you’ll lose and all of a sudden you’re black, and we’ve grown up with that. We see that every day, we’re in the 21st century but it’s still here. We have the odd strange person who says ‘I don’t see colour,’ but then if that’s the case you don’t see me.’” To which Le Gendre pointedly adds: “Or the world as it is from the other side.”

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Based on his observations of Thelonious Monk, Steve Lacy concluded that, if you lasted long enough, the times would catch up to you; “turning ‘no’ into ‘yes.’” The last five years suggest that Thomas has entered this phase of his work. In late 2014, Thomas was one of four composers to receive the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Awards for Artists. There are some parallels between Hamlyn awards and MacArthur Foundation fellowships, commonly referred to as genius grants. Nominations tend to be inside jobs. Only past MacArthur fellows can nominate, whereas the Hamlyn nominating committee for composers consists of market-shaping producers as well as peers, and at least one tends to have at least a tangential relationship to an eventual winner. Nominations are then handed off to an independent selection committee. The imprimatur of the awards is lifelong, and becomes a top-line reference in the artist’s bio; more immediately, the award has no conditions for its use. The sums of individual awards are quite different, however. While only one musician – if any – wins a MacArthur in a given year, the fellowship comes with solid six-figure money, the sum determined by the recipient’s age, and distributed over a five-year period – guitarist Mary Halvorson was awarded $625,000 in 2019.

Still, for most folks, suddenly coming into the £50,000 Hamlyn award is akin to hitting the lottery without buying a ticket. And, for a minute, a bunch of meritorious artists working on the margins get noticed by the mainstream media. Within days after Thomas won his award, The Independent ran an article with the tabloid-worthy headline, “How do award-winning artists spend their prize money?,” followed by the cheeky sub-header, “As one of Britain's biggest arts prizes is handed out for a 20th year, Holly Williams hears how five previous recipients have used their £50,000 windfall – from giving up the day job to, um, buying a mobile disco.” Thomas and his co-awardees are only given perfunctory congratulations in the fifth paragraph, and are not asked to comment on receiving the award, let alone how they would spend it – presumably they were still on the floor from the news. A 2008 recipient, sound artist Janek Schaefer is photographed broadly smiling, holding a turntable under his arm; his purchase of PA and disco gear, and a collection of 7”s from a retired pub DJ, facilitated a side-gig working weddings and children’s events after the financial crash. His 2007 award gave saxophonist Iain Ballamy the unpressured time to deliver a commission to the London Sinfonietta – he also bought a Yahama S6 grand piano.

“I will never forget the phone call as I wasn’t expecting to get it, and it didn’t really sink in until the award ceremony,” Thomas recently recounted. “Receiving the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award was really life changing for me. First, it allowed me to update my equipment and, more importantly, gave me time. It allows you to develop new ideas without worrying about mundane things like paying the rent. Also, it opens doors like work opportunities that weren’t available before. The great thing about this is that there are no conditions – they trust the artist completely.”

There is rarely a straight line between a grant like the Hamlyn and the MacArthur and a major project, Anthony Braxton’s 1996 staging of his opera Trillium R a monumental exception to the rule. Far more often, the impact is subtle. Thomas purchasing iPads did not lead to a magnum opus; but they made it easier to travel. Greater flexibility in travel translates into more extensive collaborations and performances outside the UK – in the autumn of 2019 alone, Thomas toured Scandinavia as part of Bagman, a new trio with drummer Raymond Strid and saxophonist Sture Ericson, and China with drummer Hamid Drake. These impacts are compounded by their footprints – recordings and reviews – and the subsequent opportunities they generate. Many of Thomas’ projects in the last five years may have happened, regardless; now approaching 60, he is well established, respected, and increasingly sought after. But the Hamlyn provided grease for the skids.

Thomas has since continued to be a presence on the London improvised music scene. Two albums issued mid-2019 by contrasting trios with a saxophonist and a drummer are noteworthy: Fictional Souvenirs (Astral Spirits), which documents a 2017 performance a John Butcher and Ståle Liavik Solberg at Iklectik, the forward-leaning South London arts space, and Live at Café Oto (577) by Shifa, the trio with Rachel Musson and Mark Sanders. Thomas exclusively employs a Moog Theremini and iPads on the former, and plays only piano on the latter. Hearing these aspects of Thomas’ work in isolation sheds instructive light on both. Whether he generates ethereal wind-like whistles or industrial thunder, Thomas’s electronics tend to be more overtly and immediately provocative; he initiates provocative three-way volleys that Butcher and Solberg are especially well-equipped to return. With Musson and Sanders, Thomas is more insinuating, wedging materials into the unfolding improvisations in a manner akin to Alexander von Schlippenbach’s with his trio with Evan Parker and, now, Paul Lytton. One take-away from these recordings is the realization that, in forums like Black Top, Thomas integrates these contrasting tendencies into a cogent, continuously morphing whole.

Intriguingly, jazz luminaries have been a foreground element in several of Thomas’ projects during this period. Three of the four whose work he has investigated either as a solo pianist or a member of a collective ensemble – Duke Ellington; Bobby Timmons; and Ahmed Abdul-Malik – form an aesthetic arc. Ellington remains the fountainhead of jazz cosmopolitanism. Hard bop is quintessential working-class Saturday night music, of which Timmons’ “Moanin’” is indelibly emblematic. Abdul-Malik articulated a diasporic aesthetic honoring the contributions of Islamic and Arabic-speaking Africa and Iberia to jazz. Ellington, Timmons and Abdul-Malik each contributed to jazz’s emergent Afrocentrism in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Long after his association with jungle music, Ellington sought late-career inspiration in non-Western traditions, yielding masterpieces like Far East Suite. Both Ellington and Timmons absorbed church music, even if Ellington’s sacred music was scaled for cathedrals, while Timmons’ gospel-informed soul jazz was temperamentally closer to the storefront mission and the tent meeting. During this period, Abdul-Malik’s recordings on oud and Yusef Lateef’s early use of arghul constituted an Arabic-Islamic tangent to jazz’s central focus on sub-Saharan Africa, which was embraced by such mainstream franchise units like the 1960 edition of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers with Timmons. The odd man out of the jazz artists recently reexamined by Thomas is Paul Bley, who sought essences, not roots.

Thomas is more deeply immersed in Ellington and Abdul-Malik. Thomas’ relationship to Timmons, discographically, is limited to an encore performance of “Moanin’” by Black Top and guests Hamid Drake and William Parker – a Café Oto set documented on #3 Free (Babel). However, it is the set-long “For Joe Harriott” that is the album’s more significant performance, setting the fire that the Timmons tune quenched with sanctified joy. Central to the iconography of diasporic jazz in the UK, the Jamaican saxophonist produced a history-shaping body of work in the 1960s, introducing new strategies for improvisation and pioneering cross-cultural exchanges – on a few counts, Thomas, Robinson and their black contemporaries in the UK remain indebted to Harriott. Throughout the performance, Parker and Drake generate one palpable groove after another, allowing Robinson and Thomas to build initially imposing masses of sound that resolve with jubilance.

BleySchool is a trio with bassist Dominic Lash and percussionist Tony Orrell, its name a pun on Play School, the children’s television program they were weaned on. Its purview extends beyond Bley’s early relationship with Ornette Coleman and Carla Bley’s compositions to include Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” (Bley rarely recorded Ellington’s music, and never waxed the swoon-inducing ballad). “Aloof,” the opening track of their eponymous debut (577) finds Thomas essaying in a Bleyish manner, moving the tonal center of permutated phrases in unexpected ways, and slipping filigrees between Lash and Orrell’s threads. Despite the ample merits of his playing with BleySchool, Thomas’ connection to Bley does not convey the same as-serious-as-your-life affinities he has with Ellington and Abudl-Mailk.

For a pianist with any connection to jazz, Ellington’s music is unavoidable, a litmus test that is advisedly taken somewhat later in life than sooner, as indicated by Pat Thomas Plays Ellington 24.4.19 (Otoroku). Too often, Ellington’s music is approached with little more than facility by young pianists; only with wear from the road and a weathered soul can its depths be reached. Thomas not only brings these assets to his readings of Ellington, but also a sureness in venturing off the beaten path. Subsequently, Thomas’ performances are strong distillates that contrast sharply from most takes on Ellington – Abdullah Ibrahim’s spikes from petal-delicate lyricism to tsunami-like sweeps of the keyboard being the closest point of comparison. No one has previously turned “Take the Coltrane” into a careening stride vehicle; nor has anyone turned the piano interior into a huge mbira to play “Rockin’ in Rhythm.” And few have taken on “Isfahan” from Far East Suite at all, let alone with Thomas’ nuances. Among the many solo piano recordings that interpret Ellington’s compositions, very few approach Thomas’ in terms of bold, idiosyncratic approaches.

The artist whose background most closely parallels Thomas’ is Abdul-Malik, the son of Caribbean immigrants and an early convert to Islam (the bassist is occasionally misidentified as Sam Gill because both recorded with Randy Weston in the mid-1950s; Abdul-Malik was born Jonathan Tim, Jr.). Although he plays on such enduring recordings from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s as Thelonious Monk’s 1957 Riversides with John Coltrane, Abdul-Malik was regarded not as a dazzling virtuoso, but an efficient engine who worked hand-in-glove with unobtrusive drummers like the Monk quartet’s Shadow Wilson. Abdul-Malik made his niche in jazz history playing oud on five LPs he led between 1958 and ‘63. The first two – Jazz Sahara (Riverside; 1958) and East Meets West (RCA; 1959) – were the most radical, exclusively focusing on Arabic music; subsequent titles included Caribbean music, bossa nova, and jazz standards. Jazz Sahara has the added benefit of featuring approximately ten-minute tracks, long durations being an important characteristic of Arabic music. Employing modes, undulating rhythms, and a temperament far afield from that of hard bop with a front line that included violin and box zither – and propelled by hand drums as well as a drum kit – Abdul-Malik gave Arabic music a jazz patina instead of ornamenting jazz tunes with exotic touches. Subsequently, straight-up jazz artists like tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin on Jazz Sahara were inspired to deliver solos that gave unusual modes an earthy jazz feel – Griffin’s casual demeanor is highlighted by his quoting “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” on “El Haris (Anxious).”

Mid-decade, Thomas co-founded [Ahmed] (sometimes expressed with Arabic characters followed by [Ahmed]), with saxophonist Seymour Wright, bassist Joel Grip, and drummer Antonin Gerbal (Thomas, Grip and Gerbal were already performing as ISM). Beyond being exemplary of Thomas’s argument for an Arabic thread through jazz history, Abdul-Malik’s music represented a new perspective on freedom. “It’s so fresh and original,” Thomas told Francis Gooding for a short article that ran in the November 2017 issue of The Wire. “And think about it – he’s doing all that modal stuff before Coltrane. And it’s not acknowledged that he’s doing all that stuff before Coltrane. It’s amazing. And it’s so free, it’s almost at the same level as what Ornette’s doing around this same time.” Wright concurred: “It’s just such open music. The synthesis is an open one. It’s like, because it’s patterns that are locked together that connect with many different things ... you can open them out, and push and fold them, and the proportions still work.”

The inclusion of Wright was initially curious, as he is as committed an explorer of the outer limits of sound as there is to be found currently in the UK. As Wright told Gooding, playing tunes “is not really something that I do.” But [Ahmed] is not a garden variety repertoire ensemble, and Wright’s presence soon makes eminent sense as they strip the material down to its pulp, incessantly work an isolated phrase or vamp, and double, triple or quadruple the original duration of a given piece. Abdul-Mailk’s “El Haris (Anxious)” undergoes an immaculately calibrated deconstruction on [Ahmed]’s 41-minute version on New Jazz Imagination (Umlaut; 2017). Wright’s textures become exclamatory as Thomas, Grip and Gerval dial up an initially slinky strut to the steady pounding of native American drum circles – and then take off from there. In the process, [Ahmed] creates odd, deeply pocketed, grooves, with skeletal, interlocking parts that shift in tandem.

[Ahmed] extends this approach on the newly issued 2-LP Super Majnoon [East Meets East] (Otoroku). (“Majnoon” is Arabic slang for “crazy;” the title was the toast offered by Master Musicians of Jajouka leader Bechir Attar after hearing [Ahmed] perform in Switzerland.) There are two takes of “E-Lail (The Night)” spanning three sides; but instead of taking Abud-Malik’s approach – which smooths the rhythm of the stately melody to a brisk, smooth walk, propelling solos by trumpeter Lee Morgan and Griffin – [Ahmed]’s serrated metronomic pulse builds to a frenzy that would ordinarily become boorish after a few minutes. However, particularly on the two-sided version, the quartet has keen timing in changing up the feel – and, in the second half of the performance, unleashing Gerbal, who conjures visions of a four-handed Beaver Harris – which finally facilitates a cool-down featuring Thomas as his most rhapsodic.

After such exhilarating and exhausting performances, it is difficult not to conclude that [Ahmed]’s agenda is reaching and maintaining an ecstatic pitch. Therein lies the connection to Thomas’ Sufi ideals.

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“The great Sufi Master Imam al Ghazali said three conditions are necessary for successful music: Time; Place; Community,” Thomas recently reflected.

“I feel very fortunate to have been born in 1960, to be living in Oxford, and to be part of the UK improvising community. I have always felt that I am representing Black Oxford, often overlooked for some reason; but it was being part of this dynamic milieu that enabled me to develop as a musician. I was fortunate that I had access to probably the best public library in the western world – Westgate Oxford Central. I was also fortunate to have two really great piano teachers – the legendary Mrs. Smith and Mary Howell-Pryce – and a great mentor in the great painter Ray Povey, whose advice prepared me for the realities of being a black creative artist who happened to be living in Oxford at the right time for me.”

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