Keith Tippett: pianist, composer, improviser

Born: August 25, 1947:

Died: June 14, 2020.

KEITH Tippett, who has died aged 72, was a musical force of nature, whose free-thinking improvised piano meditations went beyond any perceived notions of jazz to take it somewhere else entirely. He did this for over 50 years, leading ensembles of all sizes and playing solo in a series of concerts that pushed his instrument’s limits while retaining a spirited playfulness at its heart.

Tippett was one of a generation of British musicians who arrived on the late 1960s London scene when anything seemed possible. While rooted in jazz in its broadest sense, he moved between the prog rock of King Crimson, with whom he appeared on Top of the Pops, to the 1980s nouveau jazz of Weekend and Working Week. Inbetween, he appeared on an all-star project, The Rock Peter and the Wolf, alongside Stephane Grappelli, Brian Eno and Phil Collins.

These were diversions, however, from a singular life-long utopian romance with music. Despite the technical brilliance and occasional wildness of his compositions, his work possessed a lyricism and a warmth that expressed a deeply-felt desire to connect, both with other musicians and audiences.

Forever attired in the downbeat elegance of corduroy jackets and tweed waist-coats, and sporting mutton-chop sideburns that seemed to take up half of his leonine face, Tippett cut a genial dash offstage. Once he started playing, his energy channelled something profound. While he could bang it out with the best of his free jazz contemporaries, for all its intensity, his approach was more holistic and delicately nuanced.

This was laid bare most clearly in his collaborations with Julie Tippetts (née Driscoll), his wife and musical partner who, after scoring a hit with Brian Auger on a cover of Bob Dylan’s This Wheel’s on Fire, moved into similarly exploratory waters. As Couple in Spirit, the Tippett/Tippetts duos were transcendent affairs that fused her wordless vocals and his percussive piano playing to become not so much an extension of their relationship as an intuitive expression of its soul.

Keith Graham Tippetts (he later dropped the ‘s’) was born in Southmead, Bristol, the eldest of three children to an English father, Patrick, and Irish mother, Kitty. As a child he was a chorister, and played piano and church organ before forming a trad jazz combo aged 14. He later updated his sound after hearing Miles Davis, and played at Bristol’s legendary Dugout club.

Moving to London when barely out of his teens was a musical pilgrimage for Tippett, though he quickly discovered the city’s jazz clubs, like its streets, weren’t lined with gold. Things changed after he won a scholarship to attend the Barry Summer School Jazz Course in Wales, where he met saxophonist Elton Dean, trombonist Nick Evans and trumpeter Mark Charig. These formed the nucleus of Tippett’s first group, whose residency at the 100 Club led to two albums, You Are There… I Am Here (1970) and Dedicated to You, But You Weren’t Listening (1971).

After declining to join King Crimson full-time, Tippett formed Centipede, a 50-piece orchestra that brought together the new generation of out-there jazzers with members of The Soft Machine, King Crimson and Blossom Toes. While a sole album, Septober Energy, was released, Tippett would later return to big bands with Ark and his Tapestry Orchestra as part of an ever-expanding network of collaborations.

There were small groups, such as Ovary Lodge, duos with fellow pianist Stan Tracey, The Dartington Improvising Trio with Tippetts and saxophonist Paul Dunmall, and assorted septets and octets. There was, too, his piano and strings ensemble, Linuckea.

Then there was Mujician, originally the name given to solo concert releases following his daughter’s insightful mis-pronunciation of his job title. It later became the name of the improvising quartet formed with saxophonist Paul Dunmall, bassist Paul Rogers and drummer Tony Levin, with six albums released under that name.

Tippett also taught at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and Dartington College of Arts, nurturing new generations of musicians to think and play as freely as he did.

His infrequent visits to Scotland included a 1990 appearance at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh with saxophonist Andy Sheppard on the back of the duo’s 66 Shades of Lipstick album. In the mid-noughties, he performed at Glasgow’s CCA and collaborated with the George Burt/Raymond MacDonald Sextet on two albums, A Day for a Reason and Boohoo Fever, both recorded at An Tobar Arts Centre on Mull.

Alongside the re-release of his first solo opus, The Unlonely Rain Dancer (1980), recent work included The Nine Dances of Patrick O’Gonogon (2015), inspired by his mother; Mujician IV (2015), his first solo album for 15 years; and A Mid Autumn’s Night’s Dream (2019), recorded with his wife in Italy.

In 2018, his activities were curtailed by a heart attack and pneumonia. He returned to live work with a series of concerts with fellow pianist Matthew Bourne, and with Tippetts and Dunmall at the Vortex in London. Both saw him continue to push boundaries with a rich depth of feeling that defined his half-century-long musical career.

He is survived by his wife, children Inca and Luke, their grand-children, and Tippett’s brothers, Clive and Thomas.