Tony Dudley-Evans writes in tribute to Keith Tippett
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Keith Tippett: A Major Figure in the British and European Jazz Scenes
It had been known for some time that Keith Tippett was seriously ill , and yet it still comes as a shock to hear of his death yesterday at the age of 72. The thought that we won’t be able to hear his totally original style as pianist or as composer again have yet to sink in properly.
Keith has been one of the great innovators in British jazz, widely respected throughout UK and the rest of Europe for his solo piano concerts, his small groups and his revolutionary large scale ensembles. In the late 1960s and early 1970s he formed two bands that were massively influential in the development of an independent free jazz scene, in UK and more widely in Europe: the Keith Tippett Sextet with Mark Charig, Elton Dean, Nick Evans, Jeff Clyne and Alan Jackson, and the amazing 50-piece ensemble, Centipede. Although the latter group, inevitably, could only perform very occasionally, it is the stuff of legend. It left its mark on those who had the privilege to hear it live.
At that time there was some breaking down of barriers between musicians with a desire to move on from the constraints of the jazz world and rock musicians with a similar philosophy, and Keith appeared on early King Crimson albums. By choice, he did not follow up on those connections and was always irritated when people made some play of that connection rather than his achievements in the area of improvised music and contemporary classical music. In that period he also met Julie Driscoll and was asked to write some arrangements for her solo album, and to play on it with members of his sextet. At that time Julie was wanting to move away from the demands of being a pop musician and Keith’s music was exactly what she was looking for. They were married soon after and Julie became Julie Tippetts, keeping the final ‘s’ of Keith original surname.
Keith performed in many formats, solo, duo, small groups, and large ensembles. He wrote for the contemporary classical ensemble Kokoro, and for his own piano and strings ensemble, Linuckea. The music for the latter group was a model for collaborations between jazz and classical music with some truly original music that brought together very successfully the attributes of both approaches. He was a sideman in some great groups; I particularly remember his playing in Nick Evans’ Dreamtime and in The Dedication Orchestra, the big band that celebrated the legacy of the South African jazz players who came to Britain as exiles.
However, two particular formats stand out in Tippett’s work, the solo piano concerts and recordings, and the Mujician group with Paul Dunmall, Paul Rogers and Tony Levin. The three solo piano albums. Mujician I, II and III on the FMP label are outstanding and ‘beautiful records, unaffected and sincere’ (The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD). The Mujician quartet came about as a result of Paul Rogers’ return from New York and a number of one off gigs, Keith with Tony Levin at Jazz Club Friday (always the highlight of the season) and Keith in a trio with Paul Dunmall. The group was formed and Keith donated the name Mujician to it. The actual name is derived from Keith’s daughter’s mispronunciation of ‘musician’. This group became one of the most important groups in UK and Europe and was unique in the way it brought together the character of four very strongly individual players. It was much more than a free jazz group as it could switch from abstract improvisation into rocking South African jazz and back into improv in a way that was totally spontaneous. Keith’s role in the group was crucial and the way he interacted with other members of the group, especially with Paul Dunmall, has provided for me some of my most enjoyable listening in this lockdown period. Mujician toured UK in 2010 to mark Tony Levin’s 70th Birthday and a year later Keith played a prominent role in the Memorial Concert for Tony in which a version of Mujician was formed with Tony’s son Miles Levin and also Mark Sanders on drums.
I have said that Mujician and the solo recordings are probably Keith’s major achievements, but I retain one other warm memory of him. This was in a duo concert with Julie Tippetts at mac in 2012 in which the empathy between the two and their immense creativity resulted in a totally unique concert full of variety and good music.
Keith was also renowned as a great teacher. This Facebook tribute to him from one of his students at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Ollie Howell seems to sum up the lasting impression he left on generations of music students: “At RWCMD we were lucky enough to have improvisation classes with Keith every week, and I don’t think any of us at the time truly understood just how much those classes would affect our playing and approach to music so deeply. There’s barely a week that goes by where I don’t think about those sessions and hearing all those amazing anecdotes from Keith.”
Keith’s individuality took many forms. Above all there were those moments when his humour, the way he responded to situations, the timing of his surreal comments in the Bristolian burr he never lost, made one aware that one was in the presence of genius. I remember a moment in the middle of the Tony Levin Memorial Concert. There was a sudden burst of loud feedback in the hall. Keith heard the sound. He didn’t wince, but did ‘explain’ to the band and the entire audience what was going on: “It’s Tony. He’s trying to get in on it!”
Keith Graham Tippetts (Keith Tippett) . Born Southmead Bristol 25 August 1947. Died 14 June 2020.
LINK: LJN Podcast Interview with Keith Tippett from 2013
Thank you Tony for these words and memories. From my experience, Keith was a real force of nature – totally committed to his musical conceptions, and yet finding ways to draw in so many young musicians over the years. His aim was not that they should become like him, but that they might experience something that he loved, a force that brought him to life. The tributes from the RWCMD students have been legion. In similar vein his Seedbed Orchestra project in the late 80s/early 90s in Bristol was open to all-comers (including beginners and amateurs as well as experienced musicians) an inside experience of playing pieces from Centipede and other projects, as well as building free improvisation in small and large groups (the latter could be a pretty cacophonous experience!). Some notable performers of today were part of it, including Pete Judge (Get The Blessing), Kevin Figes, David Mowat (BEJE) and more (and me). Keith also encouraged us to write for this mammoth ensemble, who would tackle anything at all from spacy textures through written harmonies to passages marked simply ‘Communial blowing’. And afterwards Keith was always up for a pint of cider or three and an open-ended discussion ranging from the London jazz scene of the 1960s to the fate of the brakes on his car (usually terminal). RIP to an original spirit.