|Keith Tippett at Café Oto. Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2013. All rights reserved.|
Keith Tippett, solo piano
(Café Oto. 30 April 2013; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)
Keith Tippett’s rare solo acoustic piano concert at Café Oto came forty-three years after he brought 50 musicians together to form Centipede, probably Britain’s largest ever jazz-rock orchestra. Whereas Centipede may have sailed close to the wind with its combination of corralled improvisation and strong personalities, this solo improvised performance was stamped with the clarity of Tippett’s ever-evolving musical perspective and implemented with a technical virtuosity that all but defied credulity.
Tippett’s improvised mode of spontaneous composition reaches in to multiple sound worlds, yet his method entirely eschews all but purely acoustic, manual technique. There was no hint of any electronic assistance whatsoever. No amplification, no sampling devices and (regretfully) not even a recording mike to be seen. All the work was done by Tippett and Café Oto’s marvellous new piano – and the acoustics of the well-populated room. In fact, the piano was the lure for Tippett, after Pat Thomas had tipped him off about it and suggested that he give it a test drive, as Café Oto’s John Chantler explained after the concert.
To give a hint of the flavour, one reviewer of a Tippett solo recording cast it as the ‘evil twin’ of Jarrett’s Köln Concert! That can only be a compliment.
The Yamaha grand piano was dramatically illuminated from within by warmly glowing, bright light, which served to intensify the listening experience and the impression of intimate theatre that the setting invited.
Tippett worked over the keyboard with mesmerising physical application to maintain waves of polyrhythmic patterns flecked with disparate lacuna, and intervened within the piano’s body to impose distortions that gently distressed the purity of its rich sonority to near-breakdown.
Tippett’s compact figure, hunched purposefully, generated thunderous, deep-toned drama blended with shimmering serial loops and fluctuating, overlapping time signatures – Riley meets Stravinsky meets Nancarrow – all achieved with two hands. The rapid fire precision blur of fingers gave way to manifold references – a phrase from ‘I Don’t Get Around Much Any More’, the evocation of Japanese stringed tones and eastern bell chimes, variations on folk melodies and a metallic blues, and a music box introduced late on to add an additional deflecting layer.
The continuing momentum of a pebble on the wires generated repetitions that others look to computers to achieve. Blocks were placed internally to dampen the strings, transforming the timbres to rattling musical box impotence, tinkling with percussive intent. Gossamer, feathery updraughts of bright notes floated up and away.
Tippett has said [there is] “… no dichotomy between composition and improvisation. For me, composition is only frozen improvisation. The only difference is that you are notating it … When I am playing at my best, my unconscious mind is doing the creating; every now and then my conscious mind comes in and creates an overview …” (in Alyn Shipton’s 2010 Jazz Library Interview). This concert was the perfect expression of these subtly balanced relationships. The unfolding of Tippett’s dense, symphonic improvisation was all-consuming and totally captivating.
Tippett was visibly moved as he received an unconstrained standing ovation from the admiring audience at Café Oto. With characteristic humility he confessed he’d not heard of the venue before and thought that it was “a wonderful club”, and tellingly said that “without people like you, there wouldn’t be people like me.”