Live review

Orphy Robinson & Mark Mondesir at the Vortex

The Shape Of Jazz To Come presents: Orphy Robinson & Mark Mondesir: “I heard you twice the first time”
(Vortex, 10 December 2019. Review by AJ Dehany)

Jazz Warriors alumni Orphy Robinson and Mark Mondesir have played together since the mid-’80s but, as far as they could recall, not as a duo. The Vortex club’s ongoing series The Shape Of Jazz To Come afforded them the privilege. It was also special because it was Mark Mondesir’s first live gig since he started treatment for cancer. Friendly emotions were high. They brought a freely improvised sound collage of sounds and samples crossed with funky jazztronica recalling the one-shifting rhythms of Steve Coleman’s M-Base.

Orphy Robinson. Photo credit Nadjib Le Fleurier. © Sisters Publishing.

Orphy Robinson was the disciplined randomist busily installing shifting loops and textures and improvising on piano and a Wernick Xylosynth. Mark Mondesir’s articulation on the drum kit is ringingly clear whether very loud or very quiet. It’s that matter of a thousandth of a second’s difference in letting the stick bounce off the skin or the cymbal to let it ping. He’s a busy player but the definition, control and power of his rolls across the snare, over the toms and onto the climactic cymbal hit are perfectly formed.

Orphy Robinson didn’t exactly make it easy for him, tearing up each texture as soon as it became established. Equally, you didn’t know if Mondesir would pick it up or if they would move on and try something else. It would have suited Mondesir’s style to be able to stretch out longer. The restlessness could feel at times disconnected, but brought pleasing moments of synergy. A collage of looping samples of rapid patter US-style auctioneering created a rhythmic base they built up into a dense and intense groove, closing with US dubstep-style ‘drop’ into half time, then a Kraftwerkian coda.

It was free improv but about groove and sonic collage rather than that particular language of honking duck noises that some people find irritating. Orphy’s diverse style includes that kind of harmonic atonality as well as classical style and pop references. Twenty minutes into the second set the sound went full Joe Meek 1950s weirdo sci-fi exotica. Some self-referential library interview audio championing stylistic fusion was totemic: “Jazz music comes from all the best ideas” – a notion few would deny, continuing, not without some mischievous irony, “Jazz music has to be played sweet, soft, with plenty of swing”.

Mark Mondesir. Photo credit Nadjib Le Fleurier. © Sisters Publishing.

Foregrounding Mondesir’s sheer technique and volume, the second set began with a disconcerting tension between a coiled swing-jazz clarinet loop overlaid with live chromatic piano touches, then a collage of civil rights samples, restating the importance of this struggle as a central story in jazz history leading into the present represented by samples of the current US president bragging about “massive numbers” – perhaps an ironic reflection on the small audiences of jazz – small but, we’d like to think, influential.

A sample recording of perhaps the most influential movement of the moment, Extinction Rebellion – “What do we want? Climate Justice!” – opened the final part of the set. Out of the thick collage, Mondesir seized the inspiration and set up a heavy hiphop groove over the vocal chant. It felt like a direct 21st century iteration of Archie Shepp. This particular synergy was where it felt most satisfying, whereby Orphy achieved a balance between his socio-political audio-musical collage and its sympathetic opposition in Mondesir’s natural style as an expansive groove player. The samples, loops and textures at times led the pair into great moments, but I could have blissfully stood to hear more of them just vibing off each other as great musicians and great friends.

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk

LINKS: Preview of a benefit concert  for Mark Mondesir at the 606

PRONUNCIATION GUIDE: Mark Mun-DAY-zee (or Mondésir if you’re French)

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