Keith Tippett obituary

Brilliant jazz pianist and composer who could make the outlands of modern music feel like the most hospitable of places

Few free-improvising musicians, singlemindedly stirring the soundworlds of lyricism, jagged dissonance, recognisable melody and raw noise, can bring audiences to stunned silence and leave stages to awed ovations. Even fewer are likely to have appearances at jazz clubs, contemporary-classical festivals and on Top of the Pops – but they were all in a lifetime’s work for Keith Tippett, the brilliant improvising pianist, bandleader and composer, who has died aged 72.

Tippett was a chorister, classical pianist and organist in childhood and a trad-jazz bandleader in his mid-teens, but he hit the 1970s as an exponent of a brand of jazz-rock fusion, played with prog pioneers King Crimson and ran the briefly high-profile 50-piece Centipede orchestra (1970-71).

In the decades following, Tippett led a variety of ensembles and developed unique improvising languages in duos with his poet-singer wife Julie Tippetts (the former Julie Driscoll, his most enduring one-to-one dialogue), and with the British jazz stars Stan Tracey and Andy Sheppard.

Tippett also composed for classical chamber ensembles, and could impart such dynamic input to other leaders’ bands as a piano sideman that he could push inexperienced musicians toward playing out of their skins and trigger fresh ideas from the most experienced ones.

Keith Tippett at the piano in 2012
Keith Tippett at the piano in 2012 Photograph: PR Company Handout

With his mutton-chop sideburns and penchant for countrymen’s tweed jackets, waistcoats and collarless shirts, Tippett suggested a quirky Edwardian gentleman farmer more than an experimental music firebrand. Yet he could make the outlands of modern music feel like the warmest and most hospitable of places and sometimes the most intriguingly and seductively dangerous too.

He was a genius as a solo piano improviser, his unaccompanied concerts consisting of dazzling collages of chords that coalesced into blues, mysterious patterings like somebody tearing paper in waltz-time, romantic arpeggios and thundering bass-note trills.

Though inspired by towering figures such as Charles Mingus and Miles Davis, almost nothing Tippett played invited buffs to trainspot his influences. He put a personal stamp on all his creativity, which was probably the principal key to its impact on fellow musicians, his students, and his audiences.

His birth surname was Tippetts, which Julie took as her own when they married. Keith was born in Southmead, Bristol, the oldest of three brothers. His Irish mother, Kitty (Kathleen), and his policeman father, Patrick, were both music lovers, and Keith learned classical piano from the age of four, joined the choir at St Thomas the Martyr church in the city at five, and took up the tenor horn (for a youth band) and classical organ in his teens.

When he was 14, after hearing the trumpeter Kenny Ball’s chart hit Midnight in Moscow on the radio, he formed a Dixieland band called the KT Trad Lads at Greenway secondary modern school, and the establishment’s maths teacher and brass band tutor Mike Bolhovener filled them in on the sources – Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

An accidental record-shop encounter with Davis’s So What, from the trumpeter’s album Kind of Blue, turned the teenager on to modern jazz, and Tippett (having dropped the final “s” from his given name in this period) formed a modern band that regularly played at the Dugout club, in Bristol, before he moved to London in 1967. There he began an 18-month period of soul-searching for a musical direction that he later described to Duncan Heining in Jazzwise magazine as “the loneliest in my whole life”.

However, at a summer jazz school the following year in Barry, in south Wales, Tippett found the answer when he met the cornetist Marc Charig, the trombonist Nick Evans and the saxophonist Elton Dean (later to join art-rock ensemble Soft Machine). This foursome expanded to the sextet that made a recording debut in 1969 with You Are Here…I Am There, a tentative sign of Tippett’s fluency in both jazz and rock that took off with the subsequent Dedicated to You But You Weren’t Listening - a set including Robert Wyatt of Soft Machine among its drummers, which firmly established Tippett’s group as - in his words to Heining - “the new kids on the block”.

The major record labels, still just about open to new creative jazz in those days, identified Tippett as a rising star, appealingly embracing both the jazz tradition and the explorations in rock music being made by Soft Machine, Frank Zappa, and experimental prog-rock outfits including King Crimson.

When the then 23 year-old Tippett came up with the budget-busting notion of a 50-piece cross-genre orchestra in 1970, the RCA company’s Neon imprint backed the idea, and the making of Centipede’s double album Septober Energy. A lukewarm critical response made it a limited seller, but the genie of Tippett’s creativity was by now too wild to be put back in the bottle.

He also played the piano on King Crimson’s In the Wake of Poseidon (miming the single Cat Food with the band on Top of the Pops in March 1970), and on the group’s third and fourth albums, Lizard and Islands – but he turned down the invitation to join the band permanently. Tippett was never sidetracked by money at any point in his musical life.

In 1970, Tippett married Julie Driscoll, whose grittily powerful cover of Bob Dylan’s Wheels on Fire had made No 5 in the British pop charts. Driscoll soon made clear that rock-chick celebrity status was not for her, but journeys into the kind of uncharted musical and artistic landscapes that fascinated her partner definitely were. The pair began a creative as well as familial relationship that would bloom for the next half century.

In the mid-70s, Tippett became a cornerstone one of the most powerful rhythm sections in post 60s British jazz with the London-resident South Africans Harry Miller (bass) and Louis Moholo-Moholo (drums) – a racing engine at the heart of Dean’s quartet and world-class Ninesense nonet, and the early realisation of a vivid empathy with South Africa’s musical exiles from apartheid that would fuel Tippett’s work, and theirs, for years. Two decades later, Tippett would rousingly contribute to a concert on New Year’s Day, 1992, when the star-packed Dedication Orchestra paid tribute to their memory and their music, with the drummer Moholo-Moholo by then the only surviving member of the original ensemble.

Also in the 70s, the pianist also explored more trancelike sounds suggestive of meditation and east Asian spiritual music with Julie’s voice in the group Ovary Lodge, with backdrops of softly chiming and whispering percussion. With Ark later in the decade, Tippett also returned to the challenge of big-ensemble music that could also be improvisationally free – this time with more mature control of a vast sound palette, notably on the 1978 album Frames: Music for an Imaginary Film.

In the 80s, Tippett invented the concept of Mujician – inspired by his young daughter Inca’s mispronunciation of his profession, and a name he first applied to a superb series of unaccompanied performances for Germany’s FMP label between 1981 and 1995. Mujician also became the name of one of the pianist’s most eloquent bands, an improv group of intuitive harmoniousness, with the Coltrane-inspired saxophonist Paul Dunmall, the bass virtuoso Paul Rogers and the drummer Tony Levin.

In 1992, Tippett began teaching jazz at the Royal Welsh College of Music in Cardiff, and in the new century at the Dartington music summer school, where he, Julie and Dunmall formed the Dartington Improvising Trio. Tippett’s Tapestry Orchestra also recorded the most fully realised of his orchestral ventures in France in 1998, music embracing influences from Ellington to Ligeti and Arvo Pärt, that was later released as Live at Le Mans (First Weaving).

He also reaffirmed how significant the parallel world of classical music was to him in 2000, improvising on the piano within two through-written pieces for string quartet, on the FMR album Linuckea – a profusion of flying unison passages, cliffhanging waltzes and fierce improv, but within a rigorously defining architecture.

Tippett fruitfully collaborated in duo improvisation with Sheppard, and Tracey – with the latter in all-improvised performances that would sometimes suggest two demented wizards hurling explosive spells at each other.

Inspired by his mother, he also composed and recorded a suite for octet entitled The Nine Dances of Patrick O’Gonogon in 2014, a volatile mix of almost Ellingtonian harmonies, Irish folk music, and free jazz.

Tippett’s first solo piano recording in 15 years, caught live in 2012 at Italy’s Musiche Nuove a Piacenza and released in 2016, confirmed that the master improviser had lost none of his mysterious magic. Tippett suffered a heart attack followed by pneumonia in 2018, but he returned to performing in a duo with an iconoclastic younger piano partner in Matthew Bourne the following year, on a tour partly truncated by concerns for his health.

An original of 20th- and 21st-century music, Tippett left behind a vast discography of initiations, collaborations and shared memories. As Wyatt memorably observed to the Wire magazine in 1995, “he had all barriers down, listened to everybody ... never put anybody down ...” Those qualities fuelled countless musical encounters that could never have happened any other way.

He is survived by Julie, their children, Inca and Luke, and his brothers, Clive and Thomas.

Keith Tippett (Keith Graham Tippetts), pianist, composer and bandleader, born 25 August 1947; died 14 June 2020


John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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