REVIEW: Basquiat and Jazz featuring Black Top and guests (EFG LJF 2017)

Black Top

Basquiat and Jazz featuring Black Top and guests
(LSO St Luke's, 10 November, EFG LJF 2017. Review by Dan Bergsagel)

In hindsight the parallels between free jazz and impromptu art are plain. However it took Black Top and guests on the opening night of the London Jazz Festival - performing in front of a rolling screen of Basquiat's work - to drive the point home.

The opening of Boom for Real, a Basquiat retrospective at the Barbican, has revived interest in his art and his relationship with late '70s/early '80s NYC music. Black Top's flexible approach to genre and endless array of different instruments was a well-chosen tribute to the no wave/free jazz/art punk from his TriBeCa days.

This was evocative music: Orphy Robinson's electronic vibes booming a deep bass over the occasional house background beat and Pat Thomas' clean grand piano or keys work. A sopranino, melodica, cajon or other sample tracks were launched in as and when ready. However it was Black Top's three guests that really transported the room back: Byron Wallen added a clean trumpet sound, and a clear jazz anchor slipping between stifled screeches, wailing calls and post-bop licks; Jean Paul Bourelly provided textural crunch, both complementing others and when left alone centre stage all screams and rock-and-roll rhythms; Anthony Joseph spoke with clarity and power, reeling off mesmerising rhythmic phrases with an engaging intensity that drew the instrumentalists together.

Throughout the gig a slide-show of images and film snippets of Basquiat and his work was projected, and this simple complement provided the revelation that the worlds of graffiti, naive art and avant-garde intellectualism are intertwined with free jazz. The flick of a wrist holding a spray can as a scuttled flourish on the keys, another scrawled Samo© tag as a familiar trumpet lick, the collages of anatomical diagrams and barely comprehensible phrases as musical references and re-purposed genres and samples. Both worlds are built on the principle of background knowledge and skill being drawn into improvisation, the spontaneity and circumstance adding new and deeper meanings.

Equally surprising was how the historic footage and images, all beautifully curated by Derek Richards, highlighted how what was once very much avant-garde, new and raw is now, as presented live last night, much more historic and establishment. Through its fundamental success and acceptance into the mainstream, Basquiat and that era of NYC creativity and decadence which flourished in a hostile and rapidly changing city, seem almost to have lost some of its power. The replayed footage relating to Michael Stewart's 1983 death at the hands of the police sat in stark contrast to the gig and venue.

We sat in a very tastefully renovated Hawksmoor church in the heart of Shoreditch, which is now the snazzy home of the London Symphony Orchestra. A well behaved audience sat motionless, absorbing the music and cinema with two apple mac logos shining down on them from the stage. The venue calmly emptied at 21h30. With this juxtaposition to one side, the music still lived up to its avant-garde history, littered with baffling intellectualism. Together they created a scuttling and charming chaos. Bourelly presented as a twisted George Benson, his voice and guitar chasing after each other. But George Benson chained to the electronics of Leafcutter John, and chanting of Siyabonga Mthembu.

And throughout, Thomas and Robinson's understanding provided the musical basis. Black Top and guests provided a mind-melting gig, with fascinating cross-medium parallels. But it may not have been a format or environment that Basquiat would recognise - there seems a gulf between his Mudd Club of 1980s NYC, and my LSO St Luke's of 2010s East London.

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