Orphy Robinson

“But then you’ve got the other people that I really respect, Bobby Hutcherson obviously is the main one… The fortunate thing for me is being able to meet some of those heroes, you know Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson, Roy Ayres. And with Roy Ayres I had some really good conversations. He could hear the heritage that I had learned from, he could hear that linage as well. And he’s singing in my ear bits of things that I’ve played, and that shocked me!” – Orphy Robinson

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Photo: Courtesy of Gary Thomas Kypa

Orphy Robinson’s extensive musical CV/resume stretches over three decades. He is one of the industry’s leading marimba players, vibraphone players, multi-instrumentalist, composers and musical directors. He has written for Theatre, Television, Opera and provided music scores for the 2012 London Olympics and conducted classical orchestras at the Royal Festival Hall and Albert Hall. In more recent times he has been commissioned as musical director for Jalal Nurridin’s one-off Hustlers Convention concert at London’s Jazz Cafe in February 2014 (part of a documentary on Jalal’s life), as well as performing with selected members of the Jazz Warriors international in support of his good friend and spoken word poet Malik under the monika Malik and The OG’s.

Alongside all of this, Orphy, in tandem with vocal maestro Cleveland Watkiss, heads-up Nexus – One World Music presented by Jazz Warriors International aligned with his commitment to his long-term friend Pat Thomas performing in the guise of “Black Top”. With a new Black Top three-track EP recorded live at the Jazz In The Round at the Cockpit Theatre in January 2012 featuring esteemed UK jazz saxophonist Steve Williamson, the marimba maestro Mr Robinson took time out from his hectic schedule to update Michael J Edwards prior to another of Jazz Warriors international’s Nexus – One World presentations at St George’s Church, London.

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Photo: Courtesy of Gary Thomas Kypa

Michael J Edwards: Orphy Robinson, it’s great to touch base again. I believe it was my fellow vibster Susy Marriot who sat down with you back in the mid-nineties on behalf of UK Vibe, so I believe we’re more than due an update. Back then you were quote: “…to be found composing soundtracks for the BBC or improvising with Indian musicians at London’s prime centre of classical music, as well as playing the vibes for your own brand of funk informed jazz.”

Much has happened in the interim, you’ve done a lot more writing, composing, conducting and instigating, initiating and inspiring. You played an integral part in arranging Jalal’s Hustlers Convention gig/forth-coming documentary, along with the Black Top project and Nexus – One World Music coming to the fore – not to mention your work on Paul Bradshaw’s “Sacred Spaces, Sacred Places” initiative, the name Orphy Robinson is firmly back in the limelight. How do you find time to assimilate all that you do?

Orphy Robinson: That’s a good question. The phone has been on my ear and I’ve been doing e-mails and all that from about eight-thirty this morning! And then I said, “Arrrgh!!!” because I’ve got to rush off and do a couple of meetings and set up and then come back. So I’m constantly doing stuff.

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Photo: Courtesy of Gary Thomas Kypa

Michael J Edwards: You’re a multi-instrumentalists and a multi-tasker?!

Orphy Robinson: (Laughs) There’s a lot of ‘multi’ going on. So how do I find the time? I suppose you try to make the best of the time that you have; so I will do all the things that everybody else does, you know I eat, I drink. I hardly do any keep-fit or sports or anything like that anymore, which is embarrassing because I used to be very fit. I used to roller-skate quite a bit as well; I’m quite a roller-skater… so even that’s on the back-burner now.

I’ve just been fortunate to find interesting projects to be involved in. Whether it’s doing more improvised free stuff, or the straight kind of Jazz stuff, or contemporary classical, or like next week when myself and Cleveland (Watkiss) go off on tour with Nigel Kennedy doing Bach. So I’m doing things right across the board, but I’ve always been one of those inquisitive people who are just into music per se. I’m just into music – I love music as the OJay’s said. (Smiles)

Michael J Edwards: You’re primarily known for playing the vibraphone and the marimba, keyboards and a bit of saxophone. Which came first?

Orphy Robinson: Well the vibraphone, in fact the xylophone was before that. So I learned on xylophone.

Michael J Edwards: So how old were you?

Orphy Robinson: Thirteen I think; something like that. So that’s when that sort of started. I dabbled in other things before but the proper education starts around thirteen. And then I was in the local Hackney Islington Youth Band and a youth orchestra sort of thing. So I learnt heaps. By about the age of eighteen my technique was a lot better than it is now on most instruments… I just learned a lot, I was drumming, I played trumpet etc.

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Photo: Courtesy of Gary Thomas Kypa

Michael J Edwards: Where did you study music?

Orphy Robinson: Hackney Islington Youth Orchestra. And then outside of that I went off and did other things. I was playing alto sax in the Brian Booth Jazz Orchestra and various things, so I was getting an education in different places.

Michael J Edwards: Did you grow up in a musical household?

Orphy Robinson: Only from the point of view of the radiogram in the corner.

Michael J Edwards: Watching your parents Blues dancing?

Orphy Robinson: Yeah! That was it! Dancing at baptisms, and obviously the nightlife things and stuff like that; so the usual sort of things.

Michael J Edwards: But no other family members sang or played instruments?

Orphy Robinson: No I was the first one. Now there are nephews and nieces and cousins and things that sing and do various things; and they’re really cool. But I was the first one to take a step to learn an instrument.

Michael J Edwards: Who are some of your musical influences?

Orphy Robinson: Obviously my background was playing a lot of the funk stuff. I came up in the Brit-Funk time and all that. I had my own band, Savanna, we were lucky to have hits… And I played on Imagination’s second ever hit, “In and Out of Love” which got to number two. I played the vibe solo on the record. So I did those sorts of things, but I also played with Beggar and Co., the Light Of The World guys and Central Line – you know I played in all these bands. It’s a love of mine as well obviously, all of that music. But I grew up to the Earth, Wind and Fire’s and the Brass Construction’s and Slave and in particular with Steve Arrington. Obviously Stevie Wonder – When the Savanna band disbanded I took time out to just study composition and Stevie was a person that I really got into. So that’s a big big thing for me, Stevie. And then Roy Ayers obviously because of the instrument and that pulled me towards playing the vibraphone. Then you also look at the tree of the Milt Jackson’s, Lionel Hampton’s, Bobby Hutcherson’s and all that.

There were a lot of very good players such as Red Norvo – Terry Gibbs was another one. So it was basically checking everybody that played as much as I could, such as Len Winchester. And then there was a chap called Carl Curtain, who was a big guy on the scene in the early days of the Jazz Warriors. He used to come to a lot of concerts and say, “Have you checked out this guy Walt Dickinson?” And I’d never heard of Walt Dickinson. So I went and bought a record up in the West End, cheapo cheapo and then got completely stunned… That was it! He was like the Don Dada of the vibes. But then you’ve got the other people that I really respect, Bobby Hutcherson obviously is the main one. Everybody’s got their own background and their own thing, and we all learn from each other. The fortunate thing for me is being able to meet some of those heroes, you know Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson, Roy Ayres. And with Roy Ayres I had some really good conversations. He could hear the heritage that I had, he could hear that linage as well. And he’s singing in my ear bits of things that I’ve played, and that shocked me!

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Photo: Courtesy of Gary Thomas Kypa

Michael J Edwards: It must be humbling?

Orphy Robinson: Yeah! But what a great spirit and what a fantastic musician he is as well. But also classical music – Bach was a big love as well. And just sort of looking at composition and melody and harmony and looking at great masters like a Duke Ellington or a Mingus and those great writers as well. That’s all been very important to me; it’s a big part of my life as well.

Michael J Edwards: Make-up?

Orphy Robinson: Yeah. Obviously a big influence over the last twenty years has probably been the improv area and the Free Jazz – the Art Ensemble of Chicago; Sun Ra and the whole Association for Advancement of Creative Musicians. That’s where all the great music is – Chicago.

Michael J Edwards: February saw Rap legend Jalal Nurridin’s landmark Hustlers Convention gig/documentary at London’s Jazz Cafe. How were you approached about that and installed as Musical Director for the whole project.

Orphy Robinson: Malik. I had been working with Malik and we had been doing a lot of recordings and various different things together. And has this background with Jalal and also Gil Scott-Heron; he’s worked with them so he was the link. I was lucky enough to hear some bits of music that had never come out and various other things, some greats and that. Then when this opportunity came up he said. “Look, I know you’re an M.D would you be interested in this. I’ve spoken with Jalal.” I said, “Actually yes I would.” Because it’s such an iconic album, it was a great body of work. So I went back and had a listen to it and said yeah definitely, there’s enough going on there. And again it was a great time and a great experience.

Michael J Edwards: Was it one of your most challenging projects to date?

Orphy Robinson: I suppose it could be seen as that, because there was nothing written down, it was all live. So I basically had to go through the album and transcribe everything for the band of musicians. So we came from the old-fashioned way, which was to use your ears rather than everything sort of scored out on a score for you. So that was good. But also when you’re with Jalal then the music becomes real, it’s not just this third party thing which is an MP3 or a record, it’s a real person. And to find that it worked and it all gelled together and he was very happy and very complementary. I had some very good feedback from Jalal, from the audience, even George Clinton.

Michael J Edwards: Were you aware of the name Jalal prior to being introduced to him, and of his importance in the history of Rap music?

Orphy Robinson: Yeah! Yeah! The Last Poets – the whole kind of history of the voice and how it is used in the spoken word and rap; just following that train of thought as well to the people that I like nowadays who are here. I like Malik’s (Malik & The O.G’s) material, or HKB FiNN, I don’t know if you’re familiar with him… There’s a Black Top record coming for sure!

Michael J Edwards: Watch this space?

Orphy Robinson: He’s a bit dangerous!

Michael J Edwards: So now let’s move onto one of your many projects. Your collaboration in 2011 with your good friend – piano, computer and electronics wizard Pat Thomas in the guise of Black Top has now borne fruit with release on the Babel label of a three track EP entitled “Black Top #One.” How was the initial link with Pat Thomas established and the idea for Black Top spawned?

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Orphy Robinson: Pat and I have been playing together since we met through the London Musicians Collective. We were fortunate to tour with the great conductor Butch Morris and Pat was a part of that ensemble. There was about thirty of us in there; including Byron Wallen. So the three of us hung out – Byron obviously I’ve known forever, but Pat was a new person to me. Then after the tour we just kept in contact and started to play. I brought Pat into a lot of my projects – The Codefive Band with Jean Toussaint, Kendrick Rowe and Dudley Phillips. And we just always were on the same page, the way that we listened to music and stuff.

And because we both were doing a lot of work for a lot of interesting people within the Contemporary Classical world, but also the Free Improv and the Free Jazz world, many times we would sit down and sort of say, “It’s great to listen to the European sounds that come from there; and also the scene comes from obviously The Art Ensemble and all of the Henry Thread Gil, Braxton – everybody from the other side of the water and the whole Chicago thing. But I’m hearing Dub and I’m hearing this and I’m hearing that, so why don’t we use our own perspective; our own black music perspective to bring that into the Improv world.”
The name Back Top though actually came out of the mis-heard word, it was actually “laptop!” (Laughs)

Michael J Edwards: That’s an amazing confession!

Orphy Robinson: There’s so many people who say to me, “Oh man that is really profound, you’re paying homage to our ancestors.” and so on. And then I have to explain, well it was a simple thing… And then we thought, well actually it’s not a bad name, because a lot of the influence and the samples and things we were cutting up and using and playing were coming from a black perspective, so it kind of fitted. It was like a black “Rising to the Top” of the music – it was a large element.

Michael J Edwards: You have guest saxophonist on this album none other than the U.K.’s very own home-grown saxophone colossus Steve Williamson. How did that invite come about?

Orphy Robinson: Obviously Steve and I go back into the eighties and played lots of music together.

Michael J Edwards: His classic album, “A Waltz for Grace.”

Orphy Robinson: Yeah, I sometimes played in his band; we’ve done lots of different music together, including things like the Original Jazz Warriors. Steve was always one of those musicians that you really respected as a real incredible influence and an incredible spirit; but also a lot of the things that he brought to music like the harmony were just phenomenal! The things he would study; he was a very studious person. He could be around the scene and then he can sort of not be a part of the things and then get his own things together as well. And here taken a bit of a break, for maybe four or five years we hadn’t heard of Steve for a very long time. And I was always searching for him, trying to put his name on things – he’s the guy playing in the horn section, but Steve wasn’t around. And then he appeared back on the scene and I asked him to do an invite. The first concert was supposed to be at Cafe Oto with Pat and Steve.

That was the first Black Top gig and Steve was the guest, however Pat had to go to the Caribbean because his mum had fallen ill, so me and Steve did a duet instead of doing the gig. So then the first gig became Jazz in the Round and we performed as a trio there. And out of that came work in festivals in Europe, because they had filmed it and put it on YouTube.

Michael J Edwards: On future Black Top projects do you intend to have more guest musicians?

Orphy Robinson: They all are, we had a lot of guests. Cleveland has done quite a few; Byron has done some, HKB FiNN, Evan Parker, so there’s a lot. There are about twelve albums in the can.

Michael J Edwards: I appreciate you were with Blue Note in the nineties, and now you’re with the Babel Label. How did that union come about?

Orphy Robinson: Well Babel is based in Dalston, Stoke Newington, which is where I grew up; so it makes sense to be there. And I’ve seen some really interesting and lovely projects that have been on there. I mean I’ve played quite a few albums that have been on Babel, so it seemed just like a natural synergy to be with the Babel Label and I’m having a great time actually.

Michael J Edwards: As we’re inside this beautiful St George’s Church, how did the blueprint of this beautiful and much-needed Nexus – One World Music project come about with you and fellow panellist, director and Jazz Warrior Cleveland Watkiss and the Jazz Warriors International in general?

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Photo: Courtesy of Gary Thomas Kypa

Orphy Robinson: I’d been invited to perform with the Bloomsbury Ensemble that is based in the church in a more contemporary/classical context. The day that I arrived… I mean we all go past this place on a bus on a bike, and I never looked to see this big massive building! I was completely shocked! So I came inside and set up to be with the orchestra/the ensemble and the first note that I played, I just thought, “I want to take this room home with me!”

So I then spoke with Mark, who curates the building and also conducts the ensemble, and he said, “It’s funny you should ask, you do know this church has a black history, African history. “I said, “Woah! Tell me about it?” He said, “Well, Haile Selassie, this is where he used to come when he was exiled. This is where he delivered the most famous speech that tore apart the Italians. This is an historic place.” Also there’s a film out now called “Bell” which is to do with Dido, who was the daughter of Lord Mansfield’s nephew. Anyway, she was mixed race, he brought her up and brought her here. He didn’t treat her as a slave; he brought her up in the house, Kenwood House in Hampstead, that’s where they’re based, and this (church) is where she was baptised.

But also, he was one of the abolitionists, and so the whole thing to do with Sierra Leone and Freetown is here, inside here. So every year people from Sierra Leone come here as well. And when Haile Selassie went back to Ethiopia, he constructed a big church in Addis Ababa, which is called St Georges, named after this one. So it has a pure African history.

Michael J Edwards: You have the cream of the crop of Jazz and World musicians passing through this space, was it always the intention to educate through the diversity and improvisational abilities of the performers?

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Byron Wallen: Trumpet @ Nexus May 2014
Photo: Courtesy of Gary Thomas Kypa

Orphy Robinson: Again, I had been sat on a bus touring with Nigel Kennedy; I think it was on the Vivaldi, The Four Seasons tour. And I do most of my thinking whilst on these bus tours – different ideas and different projects, and things I like to do. And I just started to write and sketch an idea, and the idea was to present – not just the straight Jazz thing – but to find some way to present people who play on the cusp of classical sort of thing as well. To look at people like Roland Sutherland and Robert Mitchell and all of these musicians; but also to bring forward people that I really enjoy listening to, like Django Bates or Errolyn Wallen or Paul Reid; these sort of people and show them in a different context – this solo and duet context in such a fantastic space. So Mark was all up for that and he said, “Yep! Come on let’s do it!” So yeah, it’s been a very positive experience.

Michael J Edwards: What is your vision for Nexus?

Orphy Robinson: That it keeps going consistently. We’ve got a long wish list of all sorts of musicians that we know, that we’d like to bring in, and we’ll get through that list and build up your audiences well.

Michael J Edwards: What do you think of the state of UK Jazz and Black music?

Orphy Robinson: That’s an interesting thing; because I have this discussion with quite a few people. It’s very different to our eighties thing, because we came from another background, so we had a lot more energy and we had more areas that we were closer to – so the Caribbean, and a mix of all these different other things. Whereas the youngsters now are two/three generations down. So they’re smoother; it’s the Google generation. We had to listen to a whole record to learn something and to learn all the parts, they just Google a little section.

So it’s a different approach. There are some fantastic young people playing as well, but right now I think there’s the curse of the British Jazz scene, where you have too many cabaret singers taking over and it’s watering the whole thing down. So there’s a whole lot of that that goes on and unfortunately they congregate under the umbrella of the name Jazz, so it devalues the name. There are so many other things that we would like to hear. There are so many other fantastic strong people that are not being picked up by promoters, because the easy thing is to get somebody singing some songs that were sung fifty/sixty years ago – It’s lazy!

Michael J Edwards: What advice would you give to young aspiring musicians/composers entering the industry?

Orphy Robinson: Listen to everything! Everything! That’s how you get revitalised… Don’t just listen to one little pigeon-hole thing, listen to everything. And that’s what will sustain you, once you’re open-minded.

Michael J Edwards: Leon Ware told me the same thing. He said if you get into his car with him, it’s classical music he has playing.

Orphy Robinson: Yeah, my kids have such a mixture of music on their phones.

Michael J Edwards: Is there anything you would like to say to the ukvibe readership?

Orphy Robinson: Keep supporting live music, not dead music – live music!

Michael J Edwards: Thank you for your time Orphy; it’s been a pleasure as always. Keep the vibe and “vibes” alive!

Michael J Edwards

Essential Album:
Black Top – #One (Babel Label, 2014) with Orphy Robinson and Pat Thomas feat. Steve Williamson

Essential Websites:
http://www.thecentreofattention.co.uk
http://www.thejazzwarriorsinternational.com/nexus-one-world-music/
http://www.facebook.com/blacktopia
http://www.boogie80.com/artist/savanna/

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Clockwise: Cleveland Watkiss, Michael J Edwards, Orphy Robinson and Byron Wallen
Photo: Courtesy of Gary Thomas Kypa

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