Free, frenetic, ecstatic music

A Celebration of Keith Tippett, Various Artists
(Pig Records, also hosted online by Discus Records)

When, years ago, I first heard Keith Tippett’s music, I hate to say it, I didn’t take much notice – it wasn’t the sort of thing I was interested in at the time. We all make mistakes. Then, years later, I came across the free, frenetic, ecstatic music of Frames and had to reverse engineer my appreciation of his output, back through Centipede to his earlier work with the Keith Tippett Group. In the early seventies, he’d appeared on three King Crimson albums, In the Wake of Poseidon, Lizard and Islands. He was offered a permanent place in the band, but declined, preferring to make occasional guest appearances. It’s easy to see why: although there’s common ground between Tippett and King Crimson, he obviously needed the space to pursue his own musical interests.

As Matthew Bourne, one of the pianists on the first track of this album, quotes Tippett as saying, while talking about their work together, ‘we can go anywhere: all that limits us is our imagination’. And, musically speaking, Tippett travelled widely. He was as at home in the conventions of jazz-rock as in the freedom of free improvised music. His choral work, The Monk Watches the Eagle (2004) is as much a work of contemporary classical music as it is the work of a jazz composer. As a music-maker and as a composer he was as prolific as he was hard to pigeon-hole and a large part of what he did was about bringing musicians together, most notably with his 50-piece band Centipede and, later, his 22-piece Ark orchestra.

News of Tippett’s death broke during the height of the covid pandemic in 2020, and it was not until 2021 that a celebration of his life could be organised. This album comprises of recordings of six concerts held at St George’s, Bristol that took place on one day in October 2021, over four-and-a-half hours of music in all. It includes improvisations by musicians who collaborated with Tippett (including his wife, the singer Julie Tippetts, aka Julie Driscoll) as well as performances of works by Tippett himself.

The first concert comprises of two improvised sets by pianists Matthew Bourne and Glen Leach, both musicians closely associated with Tippett. Matthew Bourne said of him that he was ‘the reason I play the piano the way I do’, and there are certainly echoes of Tippett in these improvisations. They also – perhaps, inevitably in the circumstances – often have an elegiac feel to them.

I say inevitably, but the following concert, in which Julie Tippetts is joined by jazz and free-improv singer Maggie Nichols, is an exuberant affair. It looked a bit daunting, I thought, a performance by two vocalists for almost forty-five minutes, but in fact it was anything but. There were occasional contributions from piano and percussion, but it would’ve been equally enthralling without them. Not that it didn’t have it’s thoughtful moments, too, as when, near the end, Nichols slips in ‘He [Tippett] loved that word “comrade” and I loved him for that’. To which Tippetts adds, ‘A true gentleman. A force to be reckoned with.’

The third concert is a performance of Tippett’s 2011 work, From Granite to Wind, for jazz septet. It features Jim Blomfield on piano, alongside three others from the original album line-up. It’s an energetic, enthralling piece and includes some of the most conventionally approachable music on the album up to this point. It serves as a reminder of just how broad Tippett’s stylistic range was.

This is followed by a largely improvised set by Double Dreamtime. The jazz improvisation project, Dreamtime, was founded in 1981. It has existed in various incarnations since. This performance features three of the original members and the word ‘Double’ has been added to the name as, on this occasion, every instrument in the group had been doubled, enlarging it from a quintet to a tentet. Tippett had played with the group from time to time and composed for it.

The fifth concert is given by the Paul Dunmall Quartet. Dunmall and bassist Paul Rogers were both original members of Tippett’s Mujician free jazz quartet. Liam Noble on piano and Mark Sanders on drums complete the line-up. Endlessly inventive, their alertness to where each other is taking the music is almost tangible. It’s an engaging set.

The final concert is a performance by The Keith Tippett Celebration Orchestra. This features arrangements by director Kevin Figes of a number of pieces written by Tippett for his Centipede ensemble and The Dedication Orchestra (a jazz ensemble formed in the 1990s as a tribute to exiled South African musicians). It begins with Traumatic Experience by Harry Miller, the late South African bass player and composer. This had started life as the first track of The Harry Miller Quintet’s 1978 album, In Conference, which features both Tippett and Julie Tippetts. The set ends with a performance of Mra, by South African saxophonist and composer Dudu Pukwana. In between, the Tippett compositions include music from Centipede’s Septober Energy, including, fittingly, the lyrics sung in Part 4, ‘Unite for every nation / Unite for all the land / Unite for liberation / Unite for freedom of man’. Tippett was a musician who believed in the power of music to bring people together, in ways that extended way beyond the music itself.

This album is a must-listen for anyone who’s followed Tippett’s work over the years and a great place to start (especially the third track, From Granite to Wind) for anyone unfamiliar with it who wants to get to know it. He was, indeed, ‘a force to be reckoned with’ and it would be nice think his work and his example will outlive him for a long while yet.


Dominic Rivron


A Celebration of Keith Tippett :

Keith Tippett at International Times:

Centipede – Septober Energy:

Frames (Music for an Imaginary Film):





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