A Celebration of Keith Tippett (various venues, Bristol, 1-2 October)

The unfailingly creative pianist and composer Keith Tippett, who died last Summer, worked in a remarkable range of styles and settings over 50 years of music-making. So the idea of an event to explore his legacy quickly expanded beyond the bounds of a single concert. The result, after lengthy plotting by a group of promoters and players who worked with him, is A Celebration of Keith Tippett, a splendid mini-festival in Bristol that runs over a day and a half the first weekend in October. Jon Turney previews the event.

Many think of Keith Tippett first as a free improviser, playing solo piano or performing in duo with his wife Julie. But that vital ingredient in his music can be over-emphasised: UK concert-goers often came across it because bookers liked a rehearsal-free gig, with low overheads. The results were often wonderful, but went with a long-standing neglect of his work with larger ensembles. Similarly, his talents as composer and arranger were all too seldom aired in this country, being valued more in Europe.

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The breadth of his musical interests was also the key element in the Rare Music Club, which he convened in Bristol for over a decade. Before my time in the city, alas, but a friend explains why it is still recalled fondly by local music lovers: “It was one of the first venues I was aware of where world, jazz and modern classical music were programmed in an informal setting. On a typical night you might hear  a classical oud player, a duet performing 20th century French songs by Debussy, Ravel and Messiaen, followed by a storming improv from Keith and his band du jour.”

Keith Tippett. Photo © Tim Dickeson

Kevin Figes, artistic director for the October extravaganza, explains that Tippett had equal affection for the club, and had voiced a wish that it might happen again. Hence the line-up for the first part of the event, when the Bristol Beacon (the new identity for the hall originally named after a slave trader) hosts a full evening in the same genre-free spirit in their foyer on Friday 1 October.

It opens with a group led by violinist Theo May, a Tippett family friend whose own interests combine folk, jazz and classical music, continues with chamber music from David Le Page and Philip Sheppard, and then folk star Chris Wood. The evening concludes with perhaps Tippett’s most frequent collaborator, Paul Dunmall, “the first person I spoke to after Julie”, says Figes. For this first of two quartet sets the great saxophonist is joined by Phil Gibbs on guitar and Tony Orrell on drums. Paul Rogers, long-time bandmate of Dunmall and Tippett in the mighty co-operative Mujician, comes over from France to complete the quartet on bass in a way no-one else could.

Saturday sees the celebrations get under way at Bristol’s other fine venue, St George’s, with piano fireworks. Matthew Bourne, who toured with Tippett in his last years, will perform with Glen Leach, conjuring the spirit of the man who Bourne credits as a big influence on his own style. (A duo recording by Bourne and Tippett should be out in time for the event). The first session will finish with another duo, Julie Tippetts improvising vocally with another great exponent of the art, and one of her oldest friends, Maggie Nichols.

The late afternoon concert begins with a welcome airing for From Granite to Wind, one of two major compositional achievements of Tippett’s last decade. The Granite to Wind Septet were booked to play in Bath for long-standing Tippett supporter Nod Knowles on the day of Tippett’s death. They will now reconvene for the celebration without Julie, and with the versatile Bristol keyboard player Jim Blomfield taking the piano part. Figes, fellow altoist James Gardiner-Bateman and Ben Waghorn reprise the saxophone parts they play on the recording, with Jake “Get the Blessing” McMurchie taking Dunmall’s place in the four-person sax section.

Then Dunmall is on stage again in Dreamtime, in a double edition that brings together ten players who were members of this long-lived band at one time or another. No piano, but two of everything else (drums, bass, saxes, trumpets, trombones): it’s going to be “wild and free”, says Figes approvingly.

Paul Dunmall. Photo © Garry Corbett

The final session will begin with a second set from Dunmall’s quartet, with Mark Sanders on drums this time and Liam Noble on piano. Then the finale from the 16-piece Celebration Orchestra. Figes, as well as adjusting the charts for Granite to Wind, is putting together the programme for this massed band of Tippett associates old and new. Figes harks back to the Tapestry Orchestra, one of many Tippett ensembles he played in – “an amazing adventure”, he calls it now – and to a similar assembly he put together rather faster for a benefit in 2018 that provided the rousing end the evening deserved. This larger effort won’t be rehearsed, says Figes – the musicians come from too far afield. But they will all have charts to study, which he’s working to finish soon while juggling other projects.

Which charts? They are likely to go back as far as Centipede’s Septober Energy from 1971, and include some of the arrangements for the fabled Dedication Orchestra, the extra-big band that featured Tippett’s key collaborator Louis Moholo-Moholo in the drum chair and presented vastly satisfying versions of pieces by the South African musicians who so excited Tippett and others in London in the 1960s and ‘70s. 

It’s a fine prospect, and the whole programme is a testament to the strength of the connections so many musicians have with Tippett’s music. All the players are working unpaid, with early expenses being advanced by well-wishers, and the whole event is in the hands of a non-profit consortium. Additional ingredients will include a video specially recorded by the Apollo Saxophone Quartet of music they commissioned from Tippett but are unable to present on the day, and CD sales by Martin Archer of Discus music who will round up recordings by as many of the players as possible. There is also likely to be a livestream, though surely this will be an event to catch in person – and Figes reports that there are already ticket sales to visitors from Italy, Germany and even the USA.

The large ensemble he led in 2018 was dubbed the Keith Tippett Appreciation Society. The October event looks like extending the reach of that group a lot further. If you have any interest in some of the most adventurous music made in the UK in the last four or five decades, it’s a society well worth joining.

LINK: Full details and tickets.

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