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Keith Tippett at the London Jazz Festival

John Sharpe By

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One distinctive aspect of his art is the use of wooden blocks, stones, and metal objects placed on the piano strings to modify the instruments sound to something akin to a zither or koto
Keith Tippett
Purcell Room
London, England
November 14, 2008

Navigating a multi-venued festival with concurrent concerts can make for some difficult choices: Keith Tippett and Stan Tracey? Or Ken Vandermark and Barry Guy? This was just one of the conundrums posed by the ten day, 237-event London Jazz Festival. Perversely living in the UK, more chances to catch American reedman Vandermark had presented themselves than for the esteemed pianist Tippett, so the choice for this listener was not too difficult, and the Festival's opening night found me beside the Thames in the front row of the Purcell Room within the monolithic Queen Elizabeth Hall.

This evening's performance was almost a retrospective, spotlighting Tippett in multiple small group guises, as composer and pianist with the Elysian String Quartet, and in two improvised duets, with veteran British pianist Stan Tracey and with his wife vocalist Julie Tippetts.

Tippett has had an illustrious career spanning over 40 years. His achievements range from madcap flourishes on seminal King Crimson albums, to leading the legendary Centipede Orchestra, to free improvising with the cooperative trio Ovary Lodge, and lately alongside reedmaster Paul Dunmall in the top- drawer free-jazz outfit Mujician.

Characterising Tippett as avant-garde misses the point: though he does play free, his approach doesn't equate to all-out pummelling. His work is often very quiet, delicate, and unashamedly lyrical. One distinctive aspect of his art is the use of wooden blocks, stones, and metal objects placed on the piano strings to modify the instrument's sound to something akin to a zither or koto, giving the illusion of two or more different voices as he utilizes different parts of the keyboard.

To begin, Tippett reprised his composition "Linuckea" for piano quintet, first recorded in 2000, but here performed with the Elysian String Quartet, a glamorous young ensemble focused exclusively on 20th Century, contemporary and experimental music. Though composed, the piece (named after a conflation of the names of his children) allows enough improvisational space to confound familiarity on repeated hearings.

A dramatic, almost call-and-response, opening pitched jagged string lines against rolling piano, before a breakneck cello and piano unison, accented by the other strings. A subsequent passage for pizzicato strings and tumbling piano sounded improvised and set the pattern for what followed, with composed and improvised sections alternating and sometimes blending as piano or a subset of the strings extemporized against written sections. Unlike many classical players called to improvise, the string quartet matched the piece's demands with sufficient gusto to avoid the tentativeness that undermines so many such collaborations.

Noteworthy passages distinguished what was overall a highly effective transcending of genres, including Tippett's tinkling bells and chimes along with plucks at the piano's innards contrasted with long string tones in what was an eerily beautiful interlude, evoking for this listener melting ice; the playful tripping piano line almost but not quite tempting the strings to abandon formality; and the interplay of colliding string fragments, scrapes and phantom squeaks, where cellist Laura Moody whistled along with her bowed lines. The piece finished with a return to the striking opening gambit and fully merited the enthusiastic plaudits.

Presaging the appearance of T'n'T, to quote the alliterative name of their duet album from the early 1970s, a second piano was maneuvred into interlocking position with the first. Tippett and Stan Tracey had enjoyed a brief revival at the latter's retrospective at London's Barbican in January 2008, but it was a pleasure to see them reunited once again here. Tracey—termed the piano godfather in the introduction by Radio Three's Geoffrey Smith—was resident pianist at Ronnie Scott's Club in London's Soho from 1959 to 1966, when he honed his art accompanying the then giants of American jazz, including Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster, Roland Kirk, Dexter Gordon, and Freddie Hubbard among others. At the same time he led his own groups and has since become a firm favourite in what could be called the modern mainstream, though he has also played in completely free settings—witness his duets with Evan Parker on Suspensions and Anticipations (PSI, 2003) and Crevulations (PSI, 2004) for the most recent evidence.

They sat, Tippett on the left, Tracey to the right, each waiting for the other to start, until Tippett's lyrical musing broke the impasse and Tracey cautiously interpolated, before picking up and extrapolating on Tippett's lines. Both showed a tendency to work the same rhythmic and harmonic areas, often with meter and tonal center implied, and it wasn't until a passage of rollicking barrelhouse piano from Tracey, contrasted with a lengthy free-flowing sequence from Tippett, that sparks began to fly. The highlight of the first piece came when the two pianists blended chiming runs, spraying overtones all over the hall. A shorter second piece followed, with Tracey starting alone, laying down a rhythmic pattern which prompted Tippett to join and heralded more genuine interaction, with each working off of the others' jabs and parries.

For the second part of the concert the stage was bathed in subdued red light, creating a suitably intimate atmosphere for Tippett's duet with his wife, and musical partner of almost 40 years, Julie Tippetts, featured on various small percussive devices as well as voice. (As an aside, "Tippetts" was the pianist's original name, the terminal "s" having been dropped early on in his career). Low-key percussive tinklings combined with a wind-up music box atop the piano for a delicate start, before Tippett began a series of deliberate plucks at the piano's strings, accompanied by his partner's low moans and a text sung as much for the sound of the words as their meaning. Such empathy engenders a freely improvised approach that sounds like little else, and the listener sometimes had the sense of eavesdropping on a deeply personal musical conversation.

One lovely passage contrasted chunky piano against a staccato high voice. Later in a long intense sequence, Tippett, by turns delicate and soulful, placed round pebbles on the strings, conjuring phantom harmonics as they rolled, with the pianist rocking the stones as he played. Bluesy phrases belied the sometimes glacial austerity, before another beautifully understated interlude, during which Tippetts struck a metal prayer bowl to release pure tones, which she put near her mouth and varied her vocal cavity to modulate the sound, while her partner rubbed a wooden block across the piano strings. Towards the close, Tippett returned to the music box again, holding the hall in rapt attention, before a crescendo of prepared piano and voice reined to a sudden halt, prompting tumultuous applause. Recorded by BBC Radio 3 this is definitely one to listen out for in its confirmation of Tippett's status as an idiosyncratic and rightly lauded free spirit.

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