Cheltenham 2023

Black Top with Xhosa Cole at 2023 Cheltenham Jazz Fest

Black Top with Xhosa Cole

(Parabola Arts Centre. 29 April. Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Review by Peter Slavid)

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L-R: Pat Thomas, Xhosa Cole, Orphy Robinson. Photo copyright: John Watson/

Black Top is the improvising duo of Pat Thomas on piano and effects, with Orphy Robinson on vibes and effects. As a duo they consistently choose interesting musicians to collaborate with, meaning that every time you see them is a completely new experience.

Their current chosen collaborator is 2018 BBC Young Musician of the Year, Xhosa Cole. He is an interesting choice because much of his reputation has been built in more conventional jazz, and yet he is clearly totally at home in this improvised world.

Black Top’s music may be improvised, and it may have European influences, but it’s solidly rooted in what Lester Bowie used to call “Great Black Music” So at different points in this hour we heard bouts of reggae rhythms, a Monk tune, some stride piano, and much more. This performance was constantly shifting, never settling in a style or a pattern, but always moving on to something new.

Pat Thomas has a powerful percussive piano style that contrasts well with the electronics he produces which screech and slide into strange rhythms. He moves seamlessly from the piano to tablet, sometimes playing both at the same time. Orphy Robinson played less vibes than I would have liked to hear, but contributed a range of voice samples with a political message, as well as a constant selection of electronic beats and rhythms. Xhosa Cole fits seamlessly into this complex melange. His saxophone playing is powerful and his flute playing sparkled.

Sometimes overtly, at other times less so, this music has a strong political message about the importance of black lives and of black music, a message which this group puts across with both power and wit.

Peter Slavid broadcasts a programme of European Jazz on and various internet stations

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