Perfect Sound Forever


Tribute by Jorge Luis Fernandez
(October 2020)

What makes an uncompromising artist? Some decades ago, I thought it would be saying no to Bono about producing U2. Now, realizing how much about depriving artistical freedom constitutes an intrinsical part of the music machinery, I consider that kind of thinking rather naive. Not that that's breaking new, of course, but in view of the industry's tightening grip on the circulation of music through applications -Apple Music, Spotify- which monopolizes the issue of whether an album is or not available, the above debate seems pretty passe today.

Not so long ago, I turned again to the question, albeit on a slightly different level: uncompromising as in freedom in the purest sense, even between peers. It was when Future Days Recordings released Terry Reid's The Other Side Of The River, a superb collection of demos from the River sessions which brought back Reid's legendary turn down of the offering to front Led Zeppelin. He choose to follow his own path, recording some flawless folk-rock albums that never escaped obscurity. But thinking about uncompromising heroes, there's another one whose dismissal to glory was even braver. Because, has he had the ability to foresee the future, perhaps Reid's answer to Jimmy Page would have been rather different. Instead, in 1971, when the band was the crowning achievement of Prog, it must have took Keith Tippett a lot of courage to refuse an offer from Robert Fripp to co-direct King Crimson. Otherwise, the acceptance "would have involved (Keith) Tippett and (Robert) Fripp sharing an equal say in the band's musical direction," wrote Fripp in his own website, always addressig himself in the third person, after hearing the sad news. Pianist Keith Tippett, one of the most adventurous (and uncompromising) musicians that graced Britain, has left this world last June, at age 72.

"Tippett is one of three musicians of my generation who continues to influence and guide my musical thinking," Fripp concluded in the same statement. "Keith's music speaks for itself. Perhaps less well-known is Keith's stature as an ethical musician, a good man. Fly well, Brother Keith! My gratitude to you."

Born in Southmead, Bristol, Tippett played piano, church organ, cornet and tenor horn in his early teens, and in 1967, he moved to London to pursue a career in music, taking menial jobs while performing in jazz clubs. By the early 1970's, he became somewhat of a fashionable figure. His punchy yet polished Sextet included the celebrated horns of Marc Charig, Nick Evans and Elton Dean (who, by that time, became an established fourth member of Soft Machine), along with bassists such as Harry Miller and Roy Babbington, and drummers like Alan Jackson and Nucleus' John Marshall (who, along with Babbington, would also join the Softs). The outfit did opening sets at London's 100 Club, supporting established names like John McLaughlin and John Surman, and the gigs opened the door for the recording of the debut album.

Released the same year as Soft Machine's Third and belonging to the same Canterbury hotbed which nurtured the Softs' masterpiece, You Are Here... I Am There (Polydor) stands out for its sheer intensity, subtly intertwined with intimate piano passages somewhat redolent of late-period Bill Evans. There's also the otherworldliness of "Three Minutes From An Afternoon In July (For Nick)" and particularly "This Evening Was Like Last Year (For Sarah)," the album's opening track, where silence and instrumental strokes play equal part in creating touching and cerebral landscapes. It was around the same time that Fripp asked Tippett to contribute to In The Wake Of Poseidon, Crimson's sophomore album. Fripp has never shied away praise for the pianist's genius, and indeed, the bowed double-bass hushedly followed by piano on the first bars of "This Evening" were somewhat to be replicated on the opening bars of "Formentera Lady," Island's opening track. The album, released in 1971, signalled Tippett's last tenure in King Crimson.

But back in 1970, Tippett was on the verge of becoming an equal partner of the fledging Crimson line-up. On Poseidon, he made an essential contribution to "Cat Food", a tightened chamber rock composition punctuated by a forceful Greg Lake vocal performance and an explosive yet accurate backing of Michael Giles on drums. Underlying this frontispiece, Tippett laid down ripples and flashy trebly scales, swallowing atonal sounds like an amoeba. His presence not only gave the track a jazz feel but also added an extra dimention to it, enhancing the song's own eccentricity.

At the end of that year, Tippett did his most remarkable contribution to Crimson on Lizard, making it therefore one of the most compelling albums ever to emerge in the Prog Rock era. Accompanied by his friends Marc Charig (cornet) and Nick Evans (trombone), in a brass section expanded by Robin Miller on oboe and cor anglais, plus KC regular Mel Collins on flute and saxes, this little chamber group elevated the poppy overtones of rare tracks like "Happy Family," "Circus" and "Indoor Games." But where this chamber group was frankly superlative was on the extended title-track suite which occupies the whole B-side, a sprawling set of mini compositions, each one glowing with delicate ornaments like musical dioramas. Gordon Haskell -indeed the most personal singer King Crimson ever had- is both eerie and entrancing on "The Battle Of Glass Tears," while Tippett and the wind players embellish the compositional drama with ripples of sound, gorgeous nuances coated by jazzy and classical influences, collapsing in the harrowing Fripp solo at the ending.

Similarly, although on a more restrained, intimate approach, this chamber group was to be pivotal also on "Islands", the suite which closes KC's fourth album of the same name. The track begins with Boz Burrell singing in a subdued manner ("Earth, stream and tree, encircled by sea / Waves sweep the sand, from my island"), bashfully accompanied by Tippett's minor chords, while Collins' bass flute wistfully replicates the foam's ebb and flow. After a prolonged silence, the chorus appears out of nowhere ("Beneath the wind turned wave / Infinite peace / Islands join hands 'neath heaven's sea") while the piano takes a firm hand on the heavenly major chords. Tippett then follows a circular, almost improvisational chord sequence which finally sets the tone for a beautiful recap of Charig's cornet. An electrical instrument -possibly an altered harmonium- takes over as an impending sunrise, a redeeming onset of light for the chorus to be repeated. Impressionistic piano lines return Boz to the wistful opening, singing note-by-note along with Miller's oboe. All of the time, Tippett harmonically frames the song, stretching its edges.

On the closing bars enters Fripp; a bit of guitar and then Mellotron, a barely audible hi-hat and finally Charig explodes in a riveting solo, fulfilling a dramatic finale to this kaleidoscopic masterpiece. Along with Tippett's jumping ship, another crucial member was ousted: Peter Sinfield, whose contributions to the group, both lyrically and conceptually, were never properly measured. Both men were to be reunited later on Still (Manticore, 1973), Sinfield's only solo release ever.

Keith Tippett Group

Meanwhile, Keith Tippett resumed work with his own group by recording the magnificent Dedicated To You, But You Weren't Listening, released in 1971 by the Vertigo label. On this ocassion, the Sextet was extended with a line-up which included stalwarts like guitarist Gary Boyle, bass player Neville Whitehead and Robert Wyatt on drums, which made up for a more robust sound as a whole. The fanfare-like motifs that percolate the album took the mantle from another Canterbury associate, Chris McGregor's Brotherhood Of Breath, while the superb "Thoughts To Geoff" alternates between free-improv, Tippett's forays into atonal, percussive passages, rapid-fire sweeps of the brass section and even Boyle's proto no wave guitar licks.

Also from the same year is Septober Energy (RCA), the only recording left by the short-lived Centipede, a colossal 50-players unit assembled by the pianist. "I'd just married Julie (Driscol) and I said I'd like to write a piece for all our friends," he said to The Wire's Julian Cowley in the May 2001 issue. "Musicianship is first and foremost, but a close second is friendship: people who really get on well with each other." A wide ranging crew of musicians integrated this towering phalanx, including close friends Charig, Dean and Evans, plus Zoot Money, Boz Burrell, Robert Wyatt, Nucleus' Ian Carr and Karl Jenkins, Gary Windo, Alan Skidmore and superb female singers Maggie Nichols and Julie Tippett, along with free-improv masters like Paul Rutherford. The piece, an uninterrupted surge of colliding instruments -the musical equivalent of a spellbinding typhoon- occupies four sides of a double LP and was recorded under the supervision of Robert Fripp over the course of three days, in the summer of 1971. Wyatt also contributed a few lines for the back cover, in the style of Ralp J. Gleeson' writings for the old jazz greats.

"If there's one little disappointment with the Centipede record", he told Cowley on the same feature, "is that the fourth side didn't capture what it was like live. That section, the anthem, comes as the culmination, after playing for one and a half hours. We recorded that at ten o'clock in the morning because of booked studio time. It's Ok, but it doesn't capture the joy."

The rest of the Seventies saw the pianist alternating between small group recordings and attempts to recapture the grand-scale excitement of Centipede. Blueprint (RCA, 1972), also produced by Fripp -"Robert is a safe pair of ears to have around", Tippett declared according to Fripp- contains perhaps his most intimate compositions of the decade, delivered by an unlikely line-up which included two percussionists (Frank Bailey and the superb Frank Perry) along with bassist Roy Babbington and his wife Julie on voice, recorder, mandolin and guitar. Cruel But Fair (Compendium, 1976), a stint with Elton Dean, Hugh Hopper and Joe Gallivan, was a far more discreet album which dabbled in fusion and Gallivan's electronics. Also from the same year is the boundlessly delicate Ovary Lodge (Ogun), the first of two albums credited to a self-titled band which once again included Babbington (later replaced by Harry Miller), Perry and Julie Tippetts.

In the following years, with the help from twenty musicians friends, Tippett'd had time to fulfill his most ambitious project since Septober Energy. Credited to Keith Tippett's Ark, Frames (Music For An Imaginary Film) (Ogun, 1978) is a riveting over-the-top masterpiece which alternates between intense, proto Fourth World freakouts with calm and cinematic passages. Kind of a take-no-prisoners response to the brand of Euro jazz ECM was famous for, the record -which included luminaries like Louis Moholo, Trevor Watts and bassist Peter Kowald next to the usual suspects trio of Charig, Evans and Dean- was also a test of sorts for Tippett to prove that he was able to infiltrate the movies industry. Although he eventually did it (on the soundtrack for the British comedy The Supergrass), Frames proved first and foremost a masterpiece on its own.

Always intrigued by resonance, from the Eighties onwards, Tippett devoted most of his life to investigate the piano as a whole, often altering the strings midway through performance. He developed a peculiar relationship to the point where each concert was the equivalent of a relevant dialogue. Magnificent solo recordings abound: the live dates Une croix dans l'ocean ((Les disques Victo, 1995), The Dartington Concert (E.G. 1992), a handful of duets with the pianist Howard Riley, the acclaimed live-in-the-studio trio of Mujician albums (for the equally estimable German FMP label) and the gloriously spooky Friday The 13th (NRL, 1997), made mostly with metals attached to the piano strings, where he occasionally feels as intruding an outlandish cave.

Regarding this approach, a pivotal album was the beautifully titled The Unlonely Raindancer (released in 1980 by the Dutch label Universe Productions), where in the course of a double LP Tippett stretches the formidable communion he has so far forged with the instrument. From frenzied, slightly minimal variations on the higher end of the instrument ("The Unlonely Raindancer") to feral deconstructions of the sonata form, sometimes with the strings dampened by wood blocks ("The Muted Melody"), at the time of this release, Tippett's music drew comparisons with the "piano as an 88-note drum" style of Cecil Taylor and -more pertinently- Jaki Byard. While this makes sense, his improvisations showed a rare tendency to juxtapose dark and light, with something unequivocally poetic at the core. Tippett even dares to fly over folk territory with whimsical arrangements, as in the pastoral "The Pool" and "Dear Irland" (almost a folk ballad). Harmonically complex but eerily alluring, the rapid-fire improvisations of "Tortworth Oak (Second Version)"usually wrap up with luminous flourishes which resound closer to Alice Coltrane's. Similarly, the devotional "Thank You God For My Wife And Children" is drop-dead gorgeous, one of the best instrumental ballads ever recorded. If, as renowned jazz critics put it, The Dartington Concert is on top of the pedestal, this album comes a close second.

"I think (the piano) it's like an orchestra," confessed Tippett to Cowley, after rejecting the Cecil Taylor comparisons. "Using the sustaining pedal, as on the third (Mujician) FMP record, I can produce sheets of sound; you can pick out what you want (...). I close my eyes, say a little prayer, whether I'm playing preconceived or spontaneous compositions, and I give my all. I'm interested in moving an audience. That's my job."

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