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Keith Tippett: 100 Best Foots Forward


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From the Albert Hall at twenty-two with a fifty-piece band to picking potatoes to make ends meet a decade later, Keith Tippett's life in music could sum up many a jazz career. After a grim '80s, things now look better for the composer, pianist and bandleader. "What I'm about to say is ridiculous but it was a marvellous coincidence that when Thatcher was ousted my career kicked in again," he says laughing. There are obviously more Tory jazz fans than we'd realised. Keith talked to Jazzwise as he prepares for three concerts at the Norwich & Norfolk Festival, including the premiere of a first choral work written for the BBC Singers.

Keith has known Peter Bolton, the festival's artistic director, since Peter managed Southampton's Turner-Sims Concert Hall. "Over the years we'd become friends and he rang and asked if I was interested in writing a piece. I said, 'Yes. I've had this idea for a while and I'd like to use saxophones instead of strings as the ensemble.'" Originally intended for Southampton's Community Choir, when they weren't able to do it, The BBC Singers took on the commission. The half-hour piece, called The Monk Watches The Eagle, features the Apollo Saxophone Quartet and four jazz/Improvising musicians including Paul Dunmall, Chris Biscoe, Ben Waghorn and Kevin Figes. Keith's partner, Julie Tippetts, wrote the text and also improvises with the ensemble.

"It's a title I've had for a very long time and I've wanted to have some music to fit the title. I started writing the piece as usual with no title and Julie was writing something and gave it to me. The title came out of my subconscious into my conscious mind." It's actually very apt with the world premiere in Norwich Cathedral and with the BBC Singers also performing a set of Early music. Peter Bolton decided he wanted to feature Keith at the Festival. They opted for Linuckea, Keith's piano quintet with the Kreuzer String Quartet, "and to show another side of my personality, a chamber improvised music trio with Paul Dunmall and Julie, called the Dartington Trio because the three of us teach Summer School there."

With the Apollo Saxophone Quartet performing another new Tippett composition in Brighton in May, some critics have thought Keith was deserting jazz for contemporary music. He dismisses the suggestion. "Some people said that with Linuckea I've gone Western classical—not in a derogatory way, it was just their observation. But if you put that out with saxophones instead of strings it would be an avant-garde jazz piece. I've no pretensions to be a contemporary Western European classical composer. I'm a jazz musician."

Such comments ignore the fact that Keith has worked with classical musicians since Centipede back in 1971. "I think jazz and improvising musicians like myself have been touching fingers with contemporary musicians for a while now. Centipede, which is well over a quarter of a century ago, nearly everybody in that band was a friend from rock, jazz and Western classical music." And as he points out, the commissions have come from the latter rather than from jazz. "No jazz ensemble has asked me to write anything for them because most jazz musicians write for themselves or play standards. So, it seems the contemporary musicians tend to ask me to write something for them and it's wonderful." Improvisation remains an important element in commissions that have included the Balanescu and Kreuzer Quartets, Ensemble Bash, pianist Julian Jacobson and the Composers Ensemble. "Most contemporary musicians are used to and like to improvise -not over chord changes, just in a freer atonal sense and they're fantastic at it as well. It enables the musician then to be a creator as well as a curator of the ink."

Keith's music has always been rooted in jazz and he traces his first enthusiasm for the music back to Kenny Ball's record of "Midnight in Moscow." In his youth in Bristol, he even had a band named by the banjo player's mum -the KT Trad Lads. "Acker Bilk was a local hero and had a hit with "Stranger on the Shore." It was the Trad Revival and, of course, Brubeck had a hit with "Take Five." It's just gone from there for me." Then someone introduced him to Mingus and at sixteen he was turned on to A Love Supreme. Keith remembers the night very well being beaten up on his way home by some thugs -from the spiritual and sublime to brute force and ignorance in a few easy blows.

He moved to London in 1967. "I didn't play much then because I didn't know anybody. Eventually when I connected up with people I started playing and I was writing my own pieces by then and it certainly wasn't jazz-rock. We might've been doing a couple of pieces with eight fills but the sextet was never really part of the English jazz-rock scene like Back Door or Nucleus." His group included Mark Charig on cornet, Nick Evans on trombone, Elton Dean on alto, Jeff Clyne on bass and Alan Richard Jackson or John Marshall on drums. Their first album, You Are Here...I Am There (1970), remains a British jazz classic of that or any period.

It also defined Keith as a very particular kind of jazz musician, a disrespecter of boundaries. As he says, "I didn't want to be involved in any school or somebody trying to create a dynasty. I didn't want to be part of that." The massive Centipede took that process several steps further in what was, for jazz at least, a hugely successful work critically and financially. "We got a lot of publicity in the Daily Mirror and Melody Maker and RCA picked up on it. Suddenly, we were flying to Bordeaux and Holland in our own aeroplane. Centipede was at the Albert Hall when I was 22. In the '80s I wasn't even part of the furniture. Myself and others like me were forgotten, yet I was the Courtney Pine of '69."

With King Crimson's Robert Fripp producing the album, it wasn't surprising when Fripp invited Keith to do a session with his band. He'd already worked as a session-musician with artists as diverse as Petula Clark, Andre Previn, Arthur Brown, Alan Price and Zoot Money. "I did three albums with them. We did a track called "Cat Food" which got into the Top Forty and actually did Top of the Pops. It wasn't where I was at but you do it for a friend." At the time, David Bowie told him he was known in the States as an 'Avant-Garde Rock pianist.' Although it was great fun, the association had unfortunate side effects. "I do Improvised music festivals and there'll be no mention of the Ark, Centipede, Ovary Lodge or my trilogy of piano solos for FMP, it's 'and played with King Crimson.' It pisses me off."

Rather than join King Crimson full-time or deliver Centipede II as RCA wanted, Keith opted for the more intimate Ovary Lodge with Frank Perry and Roy Babbington and later partner Julie as well. Theirs is a genuine partnership. As well as singing, Julie writes lyrics for Keith's projects and for me her performance on Frames, by Keith's late seventies' big band, the Ark, is one of the most powerful combinations of voice, lyrics and music in jazz. I ask what it's like working live with someone to whom he's that close. "Larry Stabbins sat in on stage with us once and afterwards he said, 'It was like tip-toeing into your bedroom.'" And just as with Mujician, the improvising group he shares with Paul Dunmall, Paul Rodgers and Tony Levin, the music is completely improvised. "Again we don't have any pillow talk—the same as with Mujician. We go on and improvise. I've had the most incredible magical moments in that intimate situation with Julie. She has incredible ears, incredible timing and she writes the most beautiful words."

Keith's work and career now seem so diverse, it's hard to appreciate just how rough the Thatcher years were for him. By then he was established in Europe and work with people like Peter Brötzmann and Peter Kowald helped sustain him through those dark times. Not that it's easy in the UK even now and Keith still works abroad far more than here. "I like playing in Venice and Tokyo and Cape Town but I'd really like to play in Bristol some time and unless I put it on myself at the Rare music Club, which is a very grassroots low budget thing, I don't work in Bristol or Bath. As for London, maybe a gig at the Vortex once in a blue moon because that's run on a shoestring."

In fact, his solo performances—and exceptional records for FMP -came about because it was a way of working with low overheads. Even piano duets, which have included his marvellous albums with Stan Tracey (TNT) and Howard Riley, (The Bern Concert and First Encounter) are hard to get together. "It's a big expense to hire two compatible pianos, more than the artists get," according to Keith. But if the chemistry's right, as it was with Stan the Man, it's worth the hassle. Keith recalls their first get-together, "We'd decided that we wouldn't work out some tunes like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea had done around that time. We would improvise and see if it worked. We played for forty-five minutes, then he looked up and we both grinned and he said, 'Let's do it. Let's take it out.'"

Drummers also feature significantly in Keith's musical world. As well as working with the brilliant Tony Levin in Mujician, still perhaps his first among equals, Keith has performed and recorded with 'blood-brother' Louis Moholo-Moholo and more recently with Peter Fairclough. "He's a very different drummer from Louis or Tony -he just allows the music to breathe. When I play with him it's wonderful. I'm so lucky. Success for me is working so I can pay the bills but I also have an icing on the cake that I am able to work with people I really respect and love. I don't have to work with people I don't like and I'm not too fond of their music but bills have to be paid."

Mention of Louis Moholo, brings us to Keith's role in the The State of Bengal Dedication Suite and its celebration of the music of the Blue Notes and the Brotherhood of Breath. I suggest that Keith was the only real candidate for Chris McGregor's piano chair. For me, their music shares a wonderful appreciation of folk and Protestant church music.

"I'm sure there were other pianists who could have done it as well but thank you for the compliment. I loved the Brotherhood. Julie and I used to go and listen to them wherever they played in London and I used to play with Mongs (Mongezi Feza), Dudu (Dudu Pukwana) and Harry (Harry Miller) anyway. They were deep friends and if I hadn't got the chair in the Dedication Orchestra I'd have been disappointed because I couldn't sit in with the Brotherhood because Chris was their leader and pianist."

Keith acknowledges that he and McGregor did have shared influences in their approach to writing and jazz piano. Chris' father was a Pastor in South Africa, while from the age of five Keith was a member of the choir of St. Thomas the Martyr Beckett Church in Bristol. "When my voice broke, I studied church organ for three years. All the time I was studying piano and when I went to secondary school I learnt the cornet, then moved to the tenor horn and became first horn with the Bristol Youth Brass Band." There's probably a book to be written about the importance of church and brass band music in the development of British jazz after WWII. In a sense, this was our Gospel music.

There's one other project very close to Keith's heart -his new big band, Tapestry. Keith fears the band will die if they don't do a gig this year. "It's mostly people who played with Centipede or the Ark —Tony Levin and Louis Moholo sitting side by side. I'd pay just to hear them. Larry Stabbins, Henry Lowther, Elton Dean, Julie and Pino Minafra and Gianluigi Trovesi. We did quite a few gigs in England. We did the Bath Festival and Tony Levin's pub in Shropshire! We've done Italy and France three times, Canada but now we can't get a gig in this country. I wanted to take it into the studio but all the people who would record it don't have the money. The ones who could afford it, you don't get further than the secretary."

There are a couple of 'rough and ready' concert recordings floating around but something like this needs the clarity of studio sound to reveal the glorious architecture inside the music. Yet I leave feeling optimistic that you'll be hearing it soon on a stereo near you -perhaps because for all the hard times Keith, and Julie, have hung in there. As he says, "This is the way I contribute to society for what it's worth. This is what I do. I'm a pianist, a composer and an educator. You get some people who don't compose and some who do and some people who teach and don't want to perform. I really love it all. But first and foremost I'm a performer—I like the smell of the crowd and the roar of the greasepaint."

Keith Tippett's Top Five

Keith Tippett Group
You Are Here...I Am There (disconforme)

There's sadly nothing by the KT Trad Lads currently available but really it began here and here you should begin if you think Tippett's music is difficult. Not jazz-rock perhaps but definitely in tune with the times. Great stuff.

Keith Tippett's Ark
Frames: music For An Imaginary Film (Ogun)

Why this rather than Centipede? Well, I wouldn't part with either but maybe the pairings work better. Stan Tracey/Keith Tippett, Frank Perry/Louis Moholo, Julie Tippetts/Maggie Nichols. Great words from JT as well. And the saxophones went in two by two and the drummers and....

Peter Fairclough/Keith Tippett
Imago (jazzprint)

Simply brilliant duo record. The title track at 45 minutes long? Should be longer, goddamit!

Keith Tippett's Tapestry
Live at Le Mans (Redeye)

Fabulous music, stellar band.

The Bristol Concert (Whatjazz)

There are better Mujician records but for so many other reasons this is astonishing. The group plus Julie have just two weeks to lick these Georgian musicians into shape. Will they make it in time for the gig? Would've made great Reality TV—instead we get Will Young and Jordan. Bastards!

Keith Tippett's Side Work

Elton Dean's Ninesense
Live At The BBC (Hux)

A bunch of mates -Louis, Harry, Elton, Marc, Nick, Skid et al—make ecstatic music together.

Trevor Watts' Amalgam
Innovation (FMR)

Perhaps the best edition of Amalgam. Worth it for Keith's contribution alone.

The Dedication Orchestra
Ixesha (Ogun)

This is why only Keith could try to fill the Mighty McGregor's shoes. Check out Dudu's lovely ""Angel Nomali." It still hurts that these guys are no longer with us.

King Crimson
In The Wake of Poseidon (Island)

Robert Fripp played with Centipede and produced the album. Keith returns the favour. In America, they heard this and went ape! From TOTP to the potato fields of Gloucestershire.

This article first appeared in Jazzwise in 2009.

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