Dave Flippo has just given himself a Christmas present.
Over the past couple of weeks the Chicago-based pianist has been involved in the launch of his latest album, Tao Tunes. It's a present to himself because the words and messages that he has based the album's 17 songs on have been with him since he discovered the ancient Chinese text The Tao Te Ching at college back in the 1970s. But as one of the most intriguing releases to appear this year, it's also a gift to the wider world.
"I was around 20 when I first came across these texts," he says. "I was a typical undergraduate of the time, I suppose, exploring different religions and looking for some sort of spiritual direction. I read a lot of stuff from Eastern religion, Zen, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, all that kind of thing, but there was something about the Tao Te Ching that I really liked and it became one of the foundations for my spiritual outlook."
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If alarm bells are beginning to ring and images are beginning to form of people arriving at your door, looking to convert you, you can switch them off now. Tao Tunes, although its creator is deeply respectful of his subject, isn't some over-reverent, worthy work. The last thing Flippo was looking to do was create a set of meditative, trancelike pieces. His idea was to convey the whole breadth of life's moods and energy. Sure, Tao Tunes can be dark and serious in places but it's also playful, joyous and musically enjoyable, and with the original text's sometimes fortuitous rhyming structure, at times it's simply downright good fun.
"There are a few instances where I rewrote the words to fit or actually added a verse from some other part of the text just to make the words work as a song," he says. "But some of the original translations have lines like 'take a bamboo shoot and make a flute' from Useful which are enjoyable to sing. Then, of course, I had to find something that rhymed with 'useful' and I came up with 'loose rule' and so you have these lines that are quite logical and maybe even profound but they can also be sung in a light-hearted way."
Flippo, who is three-quarters Scottish, with grandparents called McNaughton, Douglas and Lindsay, was born in Pittsburgh and began studying piano at the age of four. Music was the only profession he really wanted to follow, although one of his teachers at Indiana University in Pennsylvania insisted on giving him work experience of a more manual nature.
"He was this very intense Italian guy who had studied with the great Italian virtuoso Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, who himself was an amazingly powerful, dark force, and he used to rebuild houses and get me to work on them," Flippo recalls. "He'd do things like have me pound finishing nails into the walls and then come and check that I'd done it absolutely to his satisfaction. But away from that, he was a real sage. He straightened me out on a lot of things and although I do a lot of teaching myself now and I don't put my own students through that kind of DIY thing, I learned a lot about the teacher-pupil relationship from him and that whole experience may well have filtered into parts of Tao Tunes."
Having graduated from Indiana with a BA in music composition and his newly discovered Chinese texts, Flippo moved on to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where he gained his Masters degree, and then took a doctorate in musical arts in music composition at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
It was at this last port of call where this fan of Frank Zappa, Yes, Gentle Giant and what we now know as world music decided to enlarge upon his side interest in jazz. Moving to Chicago he continued to study and play jazz and became involved in working in theatre, contributing the scores for two full-length musicals, composing for chamber orchestra and touring with slam poet Marc Smith. His interests in world music and jazz coalesced in his band Flippomusic, which released a series of well received albums during the 1990s and noughties and which allowed him to finally bring Tao Tunes to realisation.
"I'd been thinking about putting music to these texts for quite a long time but I wanted to do it in a way that took them seriously but also made them accessible," he says. "For me, this is my way of paying homage to these ancient words and, I hope, getting deeper into the whole idea of them through music. But I was also always conscious that it should reach out to listeners without preaching. So, there were a few years of thinking about how to go about it, then about five or six years ago I really started to work on it, making sure the words were perfect from a songwriting perspective, then coming up with the music."
His settings of the texts lack nothing in variety and it's easy to hear why Chicago jazz radio station WDCB has come on board as the album's sponsor. There are dance metres including a samba, a tango and a beguine, lush ballads, swing tunes, funk grooves and even one song, Hopeless, that harks back to his youthful dalliances with prog rock and has echoes of King Crimson. His singing reminds me in places of the dry, sardonic and mischievous tones of Mose Allison, although it would be just as easy to imagine his fellow Chicagoan Kurt Elling singing Flippo's compositions.
"I thought of him, too," says Flippo. "I've also sent out these songs to Sting, Bobby McFerrin and Patricia Barber but have had no luck so far. Kurt Elling would be the perfect voice for these and I'd love to hear him singing them because although I can sing in the jazz style, I can't do the fantastic gyrations that he would bring to them. I'm not precious about my arrangements. I obviously want my record to sell but I'd be happy for other people to take up these songs and do them their own way. And if that gets the word out about the Tao Te Ching, so much the better because I think we're living through a spiritual drought at the moment, certainly here in the States, and without doing a big sales pitch, I'd like to think there are thoughts expressed in these lyrics that can help people who are looking for something to grab onto spiritually."
Tao Tunes is released on Oppilf Records. For further information, visit www.flippomusic.com.