|Keith Tippett. Photo by Richard Kaby(?)|
Two years ago the Mulhouse Métèo Festival had announced Keith Tippett as the opening act of their festival. I was really excited and wanted to go and see him live for the first time. Unfortunately, he suffered a heart attack some weeks before the gig, followed by complications from pneumonia and was unable to work for the next few months. Now the seminal pianist, who was at home not only in free jazz but also in avant-garde and prog/art-rock, has passed away at the age of 72.
Tippett was born Keith Graham Tippetts in Bristol on August 25 in 1947. In the late 1960s he left for London, and started several projects with groups of various sizes like his sextet, and with fellow pianist Stan Tracey in the duo TNT, a 50-piece ensemble Centipede, and many other combinations. In the early 1970s he married Julie Driscoll, who was a famous singer with Brian Auger and the Trinity. From then on she collaborated with him using the name Julie Tippetts, adopting the original spelling of her husband's surname.
At a very early stage of his career Tippett was inspired by and closely associated with the Blue Notes - Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza, Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo - after they had eventually settled in London following their South African exile. Tippett kept up this connection to South Africa his whole musical life, e.g. with the Dedication Orchestra, which was founded to keep alive the South African legacy after all the Blue Notes musicians except Louis Moholo had passed away, and which released two recordings on the Ogun label: Spirits Rejoice and Ixesha (Time).
In the late 1960s and 1970 Tippett also moved easily between jazz and rock gaining some fame for playing with Soft Machine for a short period but mainly for his contributions to three early King Crimson LPs, In the Wake of Poseidon, Lizard and Islands. King Crimson mastermind Robert Fripp asked him to join the band as a full time member and even offered him making equal decision as to the musical direction, but Tippett rejected the offer: “I didn’t want to join King Crimson, not because I didn’t like King Crimson, I had great respect for the band, but I wanted to be doing other things, I didn’t want to just go out on the road for eighteen months. I had too much love for the sextet and it would have taken me away from the jazz scene.”
In this way, Tippett remained in the jazz scene and was able to establish himself as an outstanding band leader. Besides the sextet and Centipede there was Mujician, one of the most important free jazz ensembles on the British scene, actually an all-star group consisting of himself with Paul Dunmall (saxes), Paul Rogers (bass) and Tony Levin (drums). He also produced some notable music with the Tapestry Orchestra and his octet. What is more, Tippett was also a bridge-builder of European jazz playing with many greats of the free improv scene. He played with Peter Brötzmann, Willi Kellers and Hans Reichel and recorded for FMP.
However, in spite of his extensive discography with his many different groups, Tippett was mostly known for his solo works. By preparing his instrument he created very unconventional sound worlds, he used plastic detritus, pebbles, toys, woodblocks and other objects moving round inside the instrument atop the piano's strings, which enormously expanded the sound possibilities of the piano. The term “Mujician“, a blend of “magician“ and “musician“ coined by his daughter Inca, was not only given to his quartet but also to three FMP solo albums (and later a fourth one on Dark Companion).
Keith Tippett was an indispensable part of the free jazz scene, combining an astonishing technique, a deep understanding of the textural possibilities of the piano, and a genuine melodic touch. He released outstanding albums of free improvisation.You Are Here... I Am There with his first group (1970), Septober Energy (RCA, 1971) with Centipede (produced by Robert Fripp), Blueprint (RCA Victor, 1972) with his wife Julie on guitar and vocals, Roy Babbington on bass and Frank Perry and Keith Bailey on percussion, are wonderful examples of his early career. Tern (FMP, 1983) with Louis Moholo (drums) and Larry Stabbins (saxophones) and the solo albums Mujician I &II (FMP/SAJ, 1982 and 1987) are highlights of European free jazz. From his seven Mujician albums the first one, The Journey (Cuneiform, 1990), is a true gem. His piano duo with Howard Riley must be mentioned here, for exampleThe Bern Concert (FMR, 1994), as well as his octet recording The Nine Dances Of Patrick O’Gonogon (Discus, 2018). Personal favourites of mine are Twilight Etchings (FMP, 1996) with Julie Tippetts (voice) and Willy Kellers (drums) and The Making of Quiet Things (Slam Productions, 2006) under the moniker The Number with Gary Curson on sax and the rhythm twins John Edwards on bass and Mark Sanders on drums. Now his characteristic, grumbling, thundering piano cascades have faded away forever. The king of the lower registers is dead. Rest in peace, Keith Tippett.