Jazz in the Round, Cockpit Theatre, London

Compere Jez Nelson introduced the first of the Cockpit Theatre’s monthly jazz club sessions with the promise of innovation, informality and a mix of genres and generations. The triple bill featured trumpet newcomer Yazz Ahmed’s chamber jazz trio, a solo showcase for ambient guitarist Stewart McCallum and the premiere of Black Top, a fresh and free collaboration from experienced hands. Add in the “in-the-round” setting, the offer of a quick audience Q&A – unfortunately there were no takers – and the ambience of an experimental 70s theatre, and the promise was well delivered.

The evening opened with the spectral sound of pre-recorded guitar. Dave Mannington added figured bass guitar and Yazz Ahmed played the first motif on flugelhorn. Ahmed has a true tone and spins long lines over complex, self-penned structures, but at times her lyricism lacks melodic focus. Young stand-in vibraphone player Ralph Wyld stood out for his rhythmic accuracy and panache, and provided a highlight on the Arabic inflected “Jamil Jamal”.

Stewart McCallum also began with sampled guitar, but his additions were the sequenced riffs, echoes and delays of ambient dance. The Manchester-based guitarist was keen on evolving textures, and local references –“Hillcrest” named after the school where he tutored guitar; “Vital Space” a local estate agent’s – but though minor key, his mid-evening set was more comforting background than foreground display.

The headliners, Black Top, were a much more abrasive bunch. Introduced by marimba player Orphy Robinson as playing “archaic Nubian sounds”, their through-improvised pieces had rhythmic intent wide contrasts in texture. Robinson opened with four-mallet spirals and mid-register twists, Pat Thomas intertwined close-argued piano clusters and saxophonist Steve Williamson added oblique, warm-toned sax. Soon, the trio were moving moved in and out of rhythm, jaunty at one moment, a fury of blurred mallets and fluttering sax the next.

With Robinson linchpin and powerhouse, Thomas could confidently alternate warm-hearted piano with blasts of white noise and the thin-toned rhythmic loops that he triggered from his battered keyboard and laptop. There were calls and responses and nagging dancehall beats, a shimmering ballad and four-to-the-bar discords delivered with imperious urgency. The ebb and flow rarely flagged, and capped a first strong first night.


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