Keith Tippett: British jazz pianist dies age 72

The ‘west country bloke with a great big heart’ collaborated with a wide range of musicians from Louis Moholo-Moholo to Robert Wyatt

The British jazz pianist and composer Keith Tippett has died aged 72. A post on Tippett’s official Facebook page did not disclose the cause of death.

Tippett was known for his unique approach to improvisation and prepared piano. He played in a number of adventurous, rhythmic jazz formations, including Ovary Lodge, Ark and Mujician, and composed for and performed with many leading contemporary classical groups. He collaborated with musicians from the reclusive folk singer Shelagh McDonald to exiled South African musicians such as Louis Moholo-Moholo.

In 2018, Tippett had a heart attack, which led to a debilitating form of pneumonia. It left him unable to work for a period, during which his contemporaries rallied to fundraise for him and his family. He returned to live performance in early 2019.

David Sylvian, formerly of the pop group Japan, paid tribute to Tippett for showing him “great generosity when I took my first tentative steps towards sessions based on improvisation back in the early 90s”, he tweeted. “He forged an undeniably unique path wherever fortune happened to find him.”

Born in Bristol to a musical family, Tippett began his first forays into jazz in that city before moving to London in 1967 and becoming a core catalyst in the capital’s jazz scene. He formed the Keith Tippett Sextet with saxophonist Elton Dean, trumpeter Mark Charig and trombonist Nick Evans. They recorded their debut album, You Are Here, I Am There, for Polydor in 1970.

After the group disbanded, Tippett continued to play with Dean in a variety of formations, often as part of a revered rhythm section featuring South African musicians Harry Miller and Louis Moholo-Moholo.

Keith Tippett performing at the Conservatorio Nino Rota, Monopoli, Italy, 13 December 2013 – video

Speaking to the Wire magazine in 1995, Robert Wyatt, who collaborated with Tippett in his group Symbiosis, credited him with bringing together prog rock, experimental jazz and exiled South African musicians in the early 1970s, describing him as “a west country bloke with a great big heart and completely unlike the old boy network jazz mafia that was the London scene at the time”.

Wyatt said: “He had all barriers down, listened to everybody, open-minded, never put anybody down, and one of his things was to get all these different musicians from different genres together – particularly the South African exiles. He would get together these bands and get us into them and then we’d meet each other. So really you could put a lot of that down to one man.”

In 1970, Tippett formed Centipede, the big band whose 50-strong membership included progressive rock luminaries from King Crimson and Soft Machine. Tippett would form a lasting relationship with King Crimson, performing on their albums In the Wake of Poseidon, Lizard and Islands, and once appearing with the group on Top of the Pops to perform their single Cat Food.

In a review for Let It Rock, critic Chris Salewicz wrote that Tippett’s playing was so essential to Lizard and Poseidon, “it is almost an insult that he should be relegated to the role of featured player”. Tippett, however, had declined an invitation from Robert Fripp to join the band. His style was considered influential on Mike Garson’s playing on David Bowie’s 1973 album Aladdin Sane.

In 1981, he formed the group Mujician with Paul Dunmall, Paul Rogers and Tony Levin, named for his then five-year-old daughter’s assessment of her father’s job. Tippett recalled: “[She] was asked on one of her first days at school, ‘What does your father do?’ and she said ‘mujician’ which was really cute, and it conjures up this image of a magician and a musician.”

Tippett often performed with his wife, the experimental vocalist Julie Tippetts (née Driscoll) . With Brian Auger and the Trinity, she had a hit in 1967 with a cover of Bob Dylan’s This Wheel’s on Fire. The pair fell in love while working together on Driscoll’s solo album, 1969 (released in 1971).

The London experimental music venue Cafe Oto described the couple as “among the most important European jazz musicians (improvisers, composers, arrangers) in the last 40 years”.

In a 2016 interview, Tippett attributed many of his wide-ranging collaborations to the simple fact of friendship and wanting to play with his contemporaries. In 2019, he told the Morning Star that he lived by the ethos: “May music never become just another way of making money.” His most recent album was this year’s Noise in Your Eye.

• This article was amended on 16 June 2020 because an earlier version previously said that Keith Tippett’s last album was 2018’s Live in Triest. It was this year’s Noise in Your Eye. This has been corrected.


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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