On the Sofa with Orphy Robinson
"For me a “Nightingale did not sing in Berkeley Square” but possibly in somewhere more relevant to me like Gillett Square..."
With the release of Black Top #1 14 July 2014 I thought it was time to get Orphy on the sofa to get his views on football, cricket and the long orange thing he's waving around in a photograph in his Wikipedia entry. If you don't believe me take a look for yourself. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orphy_Robinson
Orphy Robinson was born in London he has been a major figure in UK and international jazz since the 1980s, releasing two critically acclaimed solo albums on the Blue Note label and playing with a host of major artists including Don Cherry, David Murray, Henry Threadgill, Courtney Pine, Jazz Warriors and Andy Shepherd. His approach is eclectic as it crosses a variety of musical forms including jazz, free jazz, free improvisation, jazz fusion, and funk music. Black Top #1 his latest album on Babel is a collaboration with the pianist Pat Thomas and saxophonist Steve Williamson Available here Together they form a sound shape-shifting unit exploring the intersection between live instruments and lo-fi technology.
KATAN500: Favourite colour
KATAN500: Jazz is in 150 characters.
ORPHY: "Jas" its original name was derived from the Bordellos. However it became a name given to the music described by Duke Ellington as Negro folk music. It’s a catch all title for many different sounds, not all good...
KATAN500: That's 173 characters but since it's you I'll let you off. Football or cricket
KATAN500: Do you remember the Norman Tebbit test
KATAN500: I guess you're going to be tactful... How do you relax?
ORPHY: Roller Skate
KATAN500: I'm assuming that's roller and not ice à la Torville and Dean... Town or country?
KATAN500: Car or Bike?
KATAN500: Cats or Dogs
ORPHY: Both. Um...no preference.
KATAN500: Tell me something about yourself that most people don't know...
ORPHY: Ha, No idea. What could that be?KATAN500: You ready?
KATAN500: So how did you start?
ORPHY: It was the local youth orchestra in Hackney where I learned to play Trumpet, drums and Tuned percussion. Ultimately settling on Tuned percussion because I found playing it fun and interesting.
KATAN500: Are you from a musical family?
ORPHY: My parents and family listened to music from Jamaica primarily, but also introduced me to a wide selection of music from around the world. It's probably why I’ve always been open minded and eclectic. My Father was friends with a famous Jamaican trombone player named Don Drummond.KATAN500: Was there a defining moment when you decided to become a musician?
ORPHY: Well, there was a music competition at Alexandra Palace... I wasn't a participant...I was watching, but I vowed to come back the next time and win best soloist category, and I did!
KATAN500: Was there a prize...have you still got it?
ORPHY: No idea where that stuff is now. I once went a whole year winning every competition in the country. You can imagine, that would be a lot of trophies... I’m sure I would have thrown out most of that or given them to family through my various moves over the years. It’s enough for me to know that I had that grounding and did well in those early years rather than live in the past carrying around too much nostalgia...
KATAN500: OK. You've fessed up to being ‘polygamous’ with your instruments, do you have a fav instrument that you like to spend more time with?
ORPHY: My marimba.
KATAN500: Do you give your instruments names?
KATAN500: Orphy meet Zaboca [my laptop] Zaboca meet Orphy...KATAN500: Growing up what influences played on you?
ORPHY: Influences... growing up in the UK in Hackney at that time it was Jamaican music, Funk... family and friends were important. I learned to play football and cricket to a good standard.The music I grew up with still appears in my own music at various times. Musicians such as Bobby Hutcherson for the vibraphone, Walt Dickerson and Roy Ayers were influences again for vibes. My own style is eclectic crossing various styles, and I use many different instruments.
KATAN500: Who do you admire (alive)?
ORPHY: Stevland Hardaway Judkins that's Stevie Wonder to you and me...he's a prolific song writer and musician...
KATAN500: Your Wikipedia entry says that you were discovered while playing with Courtney Pine and Jazz Warriors. Tell me how you came to be involved with them.
ORPHY: No. I was first "discovered" if that is the word, by the Press in my Brit Funk band days in 1981, my band was called Savanna we had two number One hits in the R & B charts and sold records internationally. I'm still well-known in that particular genre and play in various high profile bands from that genre every year. Funnily, when I went to Japan with Courtney Pine in the 1986 the media wanted to know about Savanna more than any of the music I was playing with Courtney...[KATAN500: did that annoy him?] No why would it? They were interviews with me. I was invited to join The Jazz Warriors in 1985 by Courtney who knew about me from funk session work and the Pop charts. I had a lot of fun in the Warriors and grew considerably as a musician during that period.
KATAN500: Is "Jazz" dead?
ORPHY: "Jazz" is just a word for marketing purposes. However the music continues to grow and change...I’ve no idea what is commonly understood by the word as it means all sorts of things to all kinds of people. If there was a commonality in the meaning... there wouldn’t be different interpretations of the word. I prefer improvised music, Free, Avant-garde... I don’t follow the jazz media, or play in those particular styles that followers of "jazz" expect and relate to. To me music will always grow and change as we all know, it's if the audience comes along with those changes, and the new music catches the imagination of the musicians, which dictate if those shifts are successful or not in a commercial sense.
ORPHY: "Black Jazz"? I suppose that could be music played by musicians who are black and might have different emphasis either in rhythmic, melodic or harmonic senses. History or tradition are obviously important aspects of the music called "Jazz" that some musicians hold on to for different reasons. Fortunately that’s not the same for all of us. I prefer to move forward with a healthy respect for the past but not to linger there. Creating something from my own experiences appeals to me more. I understand that some musicians and critics prefer to stay rooted in particular periods of the music’s development in the last century, and I respect that ...even wish them well. I prefer to own and name my own music. For me a “Nightingale did not sing in Berkeley Square” but possibly in somewhere more relevant to me like Gillett Square. If the music you're playing is called Jazz then that’s what it's called. I wouldn’t go on stage and announce I’m going to play any particular colour of jazz, in the same way if I was going to play so-called Classical music I wouldn’t give that a colour either.
KATAN500: How do black "jazz musicians" fit into the contemporary UK scene: Do they have the same opportunities?
ORPHY: Musicians who happen to be Black do have a glass ceiling in employment in music education, we tend to be employed in community projects more than anything else. The odd part-time opportunity might come up once in a while in a dedicated music college, but it’s really outside of that area that we are employed. So we mostly work in community based projects, schools... I have been fortunate to have had some success in those areas with students winning big competitions internationally or going on to be successful in the commercial field, as well as being nominated for a top teaching award myself.KATAN500: Do you think there is a perception that 'black audiences' are not interested in Improv / Free/ Avant-garde jazz etc?
ORPHY: If you counted on being able to sustain a career, counting on your core audience to be black in the UK, you would be seriously deluded and very quickly starve! You just have to concentrate on getting audiences to come and listen to you and then they spread the word to their friends from whatever ethnic background they might be. Create honest music and it will find its own audience. As I said previously I don’t promote the music I create as "jazz" so I don’t lose sleep over the words or connotations. Many times people come along to a gig and say to you afterwards that they really enjoyed the music and didn’t really know what to expect, but that they might not know how to describe the music to others! Some of my ex-students come along to gigs all the time and they are mostly the ones who I didn’t teach anything that could be termed "jazz", I taught them more about opening the door to music appreciation.
KATAN500: Which piece of your work are you particularly proud of and why?
ORPHY: I’m particularly proud of my first ever album on Blue Note Records, When Tomorrow Comes because I was able to tour for a couple of years internationally through its success. I still meet people who are complimentary about the album and tell me what they got from the music. I was lucky to record two albums and two EPs there and had many fantastic opportunities
KATAN500: You’ve said elsewhere that too many cabaret singers shelter under the umbrella of jazz – do you see this as a quality issue? Why do you think new people are not being picked up by promoters – do they operate under the logic that people will only be interested in the familiar...
ORPHY: I would put that down to lazy short-sightedness by promoters who tend to hold back quite a lot of the real talented jazz artists who are struggling to find decent places to play, they do this by going for a kind of faux supper club look and an ever-revolving conveyor belt of yet more Billie Holliday / Ella fitzgerald sounding clones, with Charlie Parker bebop type lines thrown around from an endless line of talented but unimaginative saxophone players... and while we're at it let's also pretend it’s the 1950s again. Add to that, the "promoters" that have no balls and what you have is a really uninspiring pool of what I call "demoters" not promoters!KATAN500: As a young Black musician who were your role models?
ORPHY: Ray Carless and Claude Deppa. Ray is one of the nicest people out there and made the same jump from playing in jazz funk and reggae bands as myself. He's still inspiring others and has always been hard working promoting his gigs and setting up teaching opportunities in the local community. Claude helped me, gave me records and inspired me to practice at various important times, and had always said at the beginning that I would be a jazz musician one day... finally meeting up at yet another influential moment for me but this time on a Jazz platform with the Warriors in the 80s, after a period when I had taken up saxophone and was studying with various Teachers at the City Lit in Holborn that included the recently departed Kathy Stobart - a beautiful spirit and really encouraging at the time.
KATAN500: Do you think that American jazz musicians today still carry far greater clout than our home grown ones. If we take Coltrane he was American, take Joe Harriott he was from he colonies but British at the same time, therefore rejected by much of the jazz establishment...
ORPHY: Depends where in the world you are, what the promoters in that particular area thinks will sell the best for them, and the audience they have cultivated locally... and of course what they have been exposed to. However, in the Improv/Free/Avant-garde world musicians from Europe are well respected worldwide and the European circuit provides many exciting and interesting festivals, venues and situations etc. On the rejection of Harriot by the Jazz establishment, he was awarded five stars in Downbeat Magazine and could have built a very different career by all accounts had he not had an aversion to aeroplanes or travel per se! There might well have been some in the jazz establishment who didn’t take to his new music but that’s always going to be the case. Maybe some journalists will be scared to admit that they haven’t got a clue what’s going on in the music of a particular musician and that can also depend on personal preference or musical knowledge of harmony etc. Or as someone recently said at a gig when commenting on an album review, if you admit you haven’t got a clue about what’s happening the reader might think ‘then why have you got the job as reviewer? Give it to someone who does know what’s going on'! So the alternative response might be to ignore or denigrate the music/artists in order to save your own rep! He might have a point!
KATAN500: So what’s your take on Joe Harriott?
ORPHY: Joe was of course an inspiration for myself and some of my contemporaries, he was the first to experiment with free form music or a freer type of jazz predating Ornette Coleman's experiments in the late 1950s. He alongside Michael Garrick and their Indo Jazz fusion albums do some of the very first, if not the first album fusing Jazz and Indian music with that kind of "world music" sensibility. In the 1980s the Jazz Warriors did a memorable tour based on Joe’s music. Before that tour, when touring with Courtney, I also remember him playing to the band a cassette tape with some of Harriott’s music that completely blew my mind at the time because he was someone that I was not aware of before that so hearing about the Jamaican background and the whole Alpha Boys school background in Jamaica resonated with my own background. Whenever I have listened to Steve Williamson on Alto Sax in the past I can make a valid connection between the way that his phrasing might evoke echo’s of Joe’s Style. However Steve’s playing is all about his own extensive harmonic studies with a healthy respect for the past. I was once stopped outside Ronnie Scott’s by a guy who said “Joe Harriott always predicted that a generation was coming up who would put up with no shit, and be good musicians. He would have definitely enjoyed playing music with you guys”.KATAN500: What was your last tour and who was it with?
ORPHY: Recent touring has been with Nigel Kennedy the classical violinist. I have been working with him for about four years on various tours playing music by Bach, Vivaldi, Ellington, Hendrix and many more... I'll be recording a new album later this year with him.KATAN500: What projects have you got on at the moment? You know I've got to ask you about Broken Blossoms...
KATAN500: How did you get together with Pat Thomas and Steve Williamson?
ORPHY: I met Pat while we were touring with Lawrence Butch Morris and the LMC on the London Skyscraper tour in the late 1990s. We got on well and then and continued working on quite a lot of my own projects and in a lot of different bands ever since. He is a unique individual and player, who's extremely creative as you can see with the great reputation he has internationally. Steve was a natural partner in our endeavour to play the style of music we call Archiac Nubian Stepdub. Steve is a fantastic and special musician, really inspiring and constantly challenging and taking his music forward. His reputation as you can see is well earned. The rapport between the three of us on the album [Black Top #1] and whenever we perform is always a joy, it's why the music we create always feels so special.
KATAN500: Tell me about Black Top...
ORPHY: Black Top is a group put together by myself and Pat Thomas with featured guests for each concert or recording, The idea was to create original music through the use of music from the black experience and technology. The name came about through a misunderstanding when Pat went to say he had created something on his “laptop” but said “Black Top” instead. [KATAN500: ...there're probably people out there thinking it was deep and meaningful...]. We tend to adopt a more avant-garde approach to sound, notes and tones looking for inspiration in the Chicago based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians approach to improvised music...KATAN900: I was wondering if the actual process of making the music is as important as the sound. It’s not just the technical skills - though obviously that is a very important part – it’s the relationships between the musicians, and individual musician’s relationship with their instruments and then the creative relationships within the group...
ORPHY: Yes. Every little part of the music-making process is very important but external things are just as important, like hanging out, eating together, talking, its all a part of the over all composition.
ORPHY: There's Jazz Warriors Nexus...and Broken Blossoms. I lead alongside
Cleveland Watkiss the Jazz Warriors International - an organisation that doesn’t only play concerts, but is also involved in event promotions...education. We have a successful monthly event called Nexus - “One World Music”. That we put on at the iconic St Georges Bloomsbury, where we programme musicians who are better known in the Classical and world music areas. We work closely with Newham music hub and a new initiative called the Newham Youth Dub Orchestra taking in students across the borough in early stages of their musical development. I still lead music education projects at the Hackney Empire. I have been there eleven years now. Broken Blossom is one of a number of commissions I have on the go this year, A visually stunning silent movie from early last century written by the infamous D.W. Griffiths of “The Birth of a nation” fame... I've put together a quintet consisting of Byron Wallen, Corey Mwamba, Emi Watanabi and Beibei Wang for the project... Other stuff, I'm producing and musically directing some more commercial projects that will be launched next year. Watch this space.
KATAN900: If you weren’t a musician what would you be?
ORPHY: A barrister or teacher...
KATAN500: One more thing Orphy what is that long orange thing that you're waving around...
ORPHY: What orange thing is that?
KATAN900: Thank you for being a good sofa sport...
The Vortex Jazz Club with Hackney Co-operative Developments/Gillett Square and Reel Islington present, D. W. Griffith’s 1919 silent masterpiece Broken Blossoms with music scored and performed by Orphy Robinson, with Byron Wallen, Corey Mwamba and Emi Watanabi and Beibei Wang. The event is subject to sufficient funds being raised.There is a crowd funding campaign with a reward incentive for supporters. Please check it out www.gillettsquare.org.uk
Film and music screening 13 September 2014
Gillett Square, Dalston, N16 8AZ
Time: 8pm. Admission: Free