“In this one piece he has done more than almost anybody else that comes to mind in breaking down barriers in rock, jazz and classical music” raved a Melody Maker article in 1971. The magazine was not known to often dish out such enthusiastic reviews about British jazz music but this time it nailed it. The receiver of these accolades was Keith Tippett. He not only broke down those barriers, he created music that sounded as if these barriers never existed, such as the topic of the aforementioned review, the double album Septober Energy by his group Centipede. This is the story of his music journey at the beginning of his rich career, during which he released and participated in some of the most interesting albums of that period.
Tippett was born in Bristol in 1947, nee Keith Tippetts, and in his formative years started developing an interest in classical music and jazz. It was the early and mid 1960s, and jazz music of the freer kind was at its peak across the Atlantic. Tippett was listening to John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Pharaoh Sanders. In Bristol he won piano prizes, but as he turned 20 he realized that the future lay eastbound and full of a young man’s ambition he took the train to London: “I was so romantic, I just thought I’d get off the train in London, bump into Ronnie Scott or someone like that and start playing in jazz groups. Of course it wasn’t like that.” He found a job flattening boxes in a warehouse and rented a tiny apartment with no hope of squeezing in a piano. Leveraging what the bare apartment did have to offer in the way of furniture, he cut the shape of piano keys on a table to practice: “When I first moved to London I didn’t know anybody and I didn’t make any music for quite a long time. I think making out the keyboard was more psychological because I had no response because it was just a table, but I cut out an octave or two with a pen knife. The landlady stopped my deposit because I’d damaged her table but it served its purpose – it quite literally kept my hand in!”
But soon thereafter things started to look brighter. Tippett joined a two-week course at the Barry Jazz Summer School in South Wales, where he serendipitously met not one, not two, but three musicians with whom he took the first step into an astounding career. Enter trombonist Nick Evans, sax player Elton Dean and cornetist Mike Charig. Tippett remembers: “I didn’t know anybody, but Nick Evans was introduced to me. We hit it off straight away. He was a fantastic trombonist, a really good reader and a lovely guy. I’d taken some tunes down with me and we were given the opportunity to put bands together for the jam session in the evening. I did one night and I remember Elton Dean and Mark Charig coming up and telling me they wanted to play with me. So I said ‘Of Course!’ This was the second night in a two week course and already there were four of us who were really tight.”
Coming back to London, the quartet quickly became a sextet with the addition of drummer Alan Jackson and bassist Jeff Clyne, and they secured a record deal with Polydor. In 1968 they recorded the album You Are Here… I Am There, which unfortunately took the label a full year to release after the recording was complete.
Here is a great tune from that album called Stately Dance for Miss Primm. The original liner notes read: “Listen to the wonderful time feel on ‘Miss Primm’ providing the perfect spring-board for Elton Dean’s hairy solo. Yes, the days of duff British rhythm sections are long gone.”
The album was produced by Giorgio Gomelsky, a mover and shaker in the London independent music scene, owner of the Crawdaddy club and the Marmalade record label. His roster included Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger & The Trinity, an excellent band that became quite popular with unique covers of Bob Dylan’s This Wheel’s on Fire and Donovan’s Season of the Witch. Driscoll found the fame that came with pop stardom a bit much and decided to leave the band and start a solo career with music of the more esoteric kind. Gomelsky introduced her to Keith Tippett’s album and she was instantly hooked: “I just thought I’d been waiting to hear stuff like this for years, it really touched me. Giorgio suggested we should meet up and ask Keith to do some arrangements for the record.” Tippett, who professed that he sees himself as a writer first, pianist second, jumped on the idea. The result was her debut solo album ‘1969’.
This is an excellent album start to finish, graced by Driscoll’s voice and a great group of musicians, including Tippett’s band members. Tippett arranged three of the tracks on the album and also plays piano on it. On the track Leaving It All Behind Driscoll captured the career transition she was going through:
Gonna go far away
I don’t want to stay no more
There are places I must go to
Lately I’ve been feeling too low to smile
I’m gonna go and be on my own for a while
Listen to the great horn arrangement Tippett created for this song, and the contributions of oboist Karl Jenkins, a future member of Soft Machine and later in his career a Doctor of Music and world-renown composer of classical music.
Driscoll’s album was also delayed due to financial issues at the Marmalade label and was only released in 1971. By then Julie Driscoll became Jullie Tippetts, the two exchanging wedding vows in 1970. She retained his original surname. About the surname change Keith Tippett said: “I changed my name because I got tired of seeing ‘Keith Tippett’s group’ on posters, when they couldn’t get the apostrophe in the right place. Seemed simpler just to change.”
1970 was an important year for Keith Tippett. No solo album that year, but a number of guest appearances on excellent albums by others, establishing him as a sought-after musician in a variety of music styles. Lets first look at his work with two folk artists from his home town Bristol. The first is Keith Christmas, who in 1970 released his second album Fable of The Wings, including members of the band Mighty Baby, plus Pat Donaldson and Gary Conway, at the time with Fotheringay, and Keith Tippett. Here is one track, Waiting For The Wind To Rise, with a jazzy piano accompaniment by Tippett:
The work with Keith Christmas led to another folk singer. Christmas remembers: “I first saw Shelagh at the Troubador in Bristol in about 1968. I thought she was an outstanding player and writer and was on her way up. I met up with her again a couple of years later when I was doing my second album. I’m pretty sure I put her name in producer Sandy Roberton’s ear which led her to a two album deal.” Shelagh McDonald’s excellent debut album named simply “Album” was recorded during the same sessions as Christmas’ Fable of The Wings and share many of the same musicians. It includes a song written by Keith Christmas that features Tippett on piano, Waiting for the Wind to Rise. Karl Dallas of Melody Maker said in his review of the album: “We’ve been a long time waiting for a successor to Sandy Denny since she abandoned solo singing to join a band.” This is a good example of that observation:
Years later Tippett fondly recalled his experience with these folk artists: “My late mum is southern Irish, and when I hear Celtic music my heart beats faster – Scottish, Irish, Welsh or English. I remember Shelagh – it was a very beautiful, calm session, and I think I just went in, I was given chords, and that was it – do the session, get it right, and get out, and I’m afraid that’s all I can remember. I did things with Ian McDonald, who was working in a similar area of music, and also Keith Christmas, and they were all working within the same genre. I was really young, and on the scene and living in London, and they chose me, instead of many, many other fine pianists who could have done the job as well.”
And we come to the most celebrated collaboration Keith Tippett was associated with, and the reason many music fans know about him. We are talking about one of the most ambitious, experimental, yet melodic and graceful ensembles in modern music history, known as King Crimson. In 1970 and 1971 Tippett played a key role in the studio during the recording of three albums, at a time when the band was a revolving door of musicians around Robert Fripp and Pete Sinfield. He not only contributed excellent accompaniment and solos on the piano, but was also the link to the fine jazz musicians from his band, who added a unique texture to the sound of King Crimson, immediately recognizable as of that period in the band’s history.
Tippett and King Crimson crossed paths when the two acts were featured on the Marquee club’s New Paths concert series, a program that aimed to show how rock and jazz are idioms that can meet to create new music. In August 1969 both bands participated in the 9th National Jazz and Blues Festival in Sussex. Tippett’s band shared the stage on the first day with Pink Floyd and Soft Machine while King Crimson performed the next day alongside The Who, Chicken Shack and John Surman. Those were the days.
Tippett’s first recording sessions with King Crimson took place in early February 1970, when he participated in two tracks for their forthcoming album, In the Wake of Poseidon. Another article on this blog is dedicated to this album so we will keep it short here. Tippett’s first session was the delicate song Cadence and Cascade, adding a minimal yet very effective piano part.
Two days later Tippett overdubbed a piano track for a very different song that the rest of the band had already recorded a few days earlier. This time he applied his free jazz, atonal accents and runs to the sonic bombardment called Cat Food. His outrageous accompaniment is perfect for the song that somehow ended up being a single and earned the group and Tippett a spot at Top of the Pops.
On King Crimson’s next album Lizard Keith Tippett left a much more profound imprint, tilting large portions of the album towards experimental jazz while still maintaining the sonic madness the band was known for. He added electric piano to his arsenal, featuring the instrument on Happy Family (wonderful free jazz runs during the instrumental middle section) and Lady of the Dancing Water (much simpler accompaniment to the delicate song).
But the crown achievement of the album, and of Tippett’s contribution to it, is no doubt the side-long title track, divided into four sections. Everything that I like about that golden period of progressive rock is in this piece of music. Great writing and composition, evocative lyrics, wonderful vocals by Jon Anderson, mastery of the instruments by all musicians, and long and interesting instrumental passages like this one, the fabulous Bolero. Notice Tippett’s sometime modern-classical, sometime jazz, sometime avant garde work here. It is like Debussy and Cecil Taylor were in the studio when the piece was recorded. Also contributing excellent melodies and improvisations on this piece are Robin Miller, co-principal oboist with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Boulez at the time, Mark Charig on Cornet and Nick Evans on Trombone, both from Keith Tippett’s sextet.
Tippett’s last appearance on a King Crimson album took place on their next and fourth album Islands. The band was going through a turmoil of unstable lineups during that period, and Robert Fripp, who appreciated Tippett’s steady contributions and musicianship in the studio, asked him to join the band as a full time member. He even extended an offer to be an equal decision-maker in musical direction. Tippett remembers: “The terms would have been that I would have had musical input. He knew that I was a strong musical personality and I would have gone in and possibly taken it all in another way with his blessing because we would have been joint bandleaders.” But that dream lineup of King Crimson was not to be. Tippett continues: “I didn’t want to join King Crimson, not because I didn’t like King Crimson, I had great respect for the band, but I wanted to be doing other things, I didn’t want to just go out on the road for eighteen months. I had too much love for the sextet and it would have taken me away from the jazz scene.”
On Islands Keith Tippett’s work is much less extravagant. He stays with the piano on the pieces he plays on, providing beautiful, lyrical accompaniment. Perhaps no other tune in the King Crimson cannon has such an emotional impact on a listener as the title track. The opening alone, with the piano, vocals and bass flute, is timeless. Here is the original studio recording with Jakko Jakszyk’s vocals replacing Boz Burell, who sang it beautifully in 1971.
In the 2009 CD reissue of Lizard Fripp said it well, paying tribute to Tippett’s work with King Crimson: “The contribution of Keith Tippett to the transitional period 1970-1971, his determining contributions to In the Wake of Poseidon, Lizard and Islands, have in the past been appreciated, recognized and acknowledged, but not as fully as Keith deserves. I am grateful to have the opportunity here to thank Keith once more.”
Islands was released in 1971, an extremely productive year for Keith Tippett, with two excellent albums of his own. The first is his band’s second album Dedicated to You, But You Weren’t Listening, named after a tune written by Hugh Hopper for Soft Machine’s second album, released in 1969. It is a wonderful British jazz rock album, and it is evident upon hearing the music that the musicians had a great time working together in the recording studio, as Tippett fondly remembers in the album liner notes: “It was fantastic – everybody was leaping around, very happy. Not drunken… just merry. You can tell what it was like from the fade-outs. The tracks weren’t faded from musical reasons, but because we never wanted to stop playing.” Here is a great track from the album, Black Horse:
In addition to his band with Nick Evans, Marc Charig and Elton Dean, Tippett called upon a variety of rhythm section players, including Neville Whitehead on bass, Roy Babbington on bass guitar, Tony Uta on congas and cowbell, Bryan Spring, Phil Howard and Robert Wyatt on drums.
A mutual respect existed between Tippett and Robert Wyatt since 1969 when Tippett’s sextet and Wyatt’s group Soft Machine shared performance bills. Tippett: “Robert loved the sextet and I loved Soft Machine. Unusually for that time, they were playing in time signatures like 11, 7, 5, 13. But it wasn’t academic in any sense. It was music with warmth.”
The album cover features one of Roger Dean’s early album covers. This is the year he drew the cover for Yes’ album Fragile, thus starting that celebrated band/illustrator relationship for years to come.
We have reached the last album I will cover in this article, and what an album that is. We are still in 1971, and Robert Wyatt is on board along with a cast of thousands (not really, but fifty nonetheless) for Keith Tippett’s most ambitious project to date, the double album Septober Energy. The group of musicians assembled was called Centipede, after a different creature with 50 pairs of legs. I checked, and Tippett’s project actually had more pairs of legs than an average Centipede which fell short with a mere 35 pairs. But this is not a David Attenborough program, so back to the music.
Centipede was one of the highlights in Keith Tippett’s rich career. Those were the days, when a single musician could mobilize 50 other musicians to help with a project that had very little prospect of return on investment. The joy of making music together was a sufficient incentive for everyone as Tippett remembers: “We were all under 25, certainly under 30 years old, and everybody in that band were friends of ours, and we knew their work. And Julie even thought I was crazy, but I started ringing people up, and asking ‘would you play this piece’, and they were saying, ‘wow’, and nobody really thought it would come to fruition, but it did. It’s a little capsule of what was happening in London.”
There is no room here to name all the talented musicians involved in Centipede, but they represented the experimental side of jazz, rock and blues scenes in London, including folks from bands such as Soft Machine, King Crimson, Nucleus and Blossom Toes. Tippett also enlisted Robert Fripp as producer, quite a challenge for a 25 year old musician who was used to work in small ensembles up to that point. He had his work cut out for him as a producer, and unfortunately is not featured as a guitar player on the album. The sleeve notes include this comment by Tippett: “Special mention must be made of two members of the band who are not on this recording. Paul Nieman (trombone) whose exams clashed with studio time, and Bob Fripp (guitar) who was so busy in the Box that he didn’t get around to playing.” Fripp did tour with the group, and during their visit to Bordeaux, France, an NME reporter wrote: “’It’s just like being part of one big happy family’, guitarist Bob Fripp beamed between bites of his ‘sandwich jambon’”.
Robert Wyatt was asked to provide the main liner notes found in the inner gatefold of the double LP, and happily furnished his typical wit: “Of course I can’t tell you anything about this music, because that would be silly, and I can’t examine publicly Keith’s murky motives for dreaming up this insane travelling circus known as Centipede. If I were to talk about how Fripp coped with the unprecedented production problems in such a short space of time, I’d be wasting yours, because the job’s done now and I never really understood the technical details anyway. Should I try to explain Julie’s lyrics? Of course not! She’s told you what she wanted to tell you right there on the record.“ Like all involved, Wyatt was simply having a blast playing the music: “So I am refusing to write any notes about this orchestra, even to say that it’s the happiest group we’ve ever worked in, because, after all, if I told you what an incredible buzz it is being on stage with this lot, I mean really, what would be the point? I shall, however, leave you with a brief, but important, message from Nick Evans: ‘Wah-Hey!’”
Tippett did not stop with an album and found a live performance outlet for this gigantic caravan of musicians: “I had to get a gig, and so at the time, the London jazz society – which no longer exists – was raising money to buy premises in London. So they approached me and said, ‘if you put on the gig, and we arrange it, and it’ll be a big thing, we’ll publicize it and use it as a fundraising venture for us, and we’ll arrange the rehearsals’, which took quite a bit of time.” Rehearsals proved difficult, with venues not geared towards such a large ensemble and sound checks running for hours.
Tippett had to find a way to finance this venture, a major concern given the number of people he had to transport, lodge and feed. Somehow the non-commercial music he was making found a home at a commercial label: “RCA picked it up very quickly and paid for a lot of our transport, and wanted to keep it going and going and going … I’m joking now, but maybe they would’ve liked it on ice, and with elephants, they wanted to keep it going! They hired an airplane for us, so all the cellists, all the double bassists, could take their instruments inside the plane.”
You can’t expect 50 musicians in their 20s in the year 1971 to go as a pack on the road with no shenanigans, and while this was no wild rock n roll mayhem type of tour, Tippett still remembers a few episodes. Even the shenanigans were of musical nature: “In those days you could smoke on planes, and they said you can take your seatbelts off now, and smoke, and suddenly I’m beginning to smell this wonderful smell, these big spliffs being pulled out! And I can remember one stewardess’s face, and suddenly one of the bass players took the case off the bass, and started jamming, and there were saxophone players, I would say a third of the band were having a jam session at 30,000 feet.”
“It was quite something, and (sax player) Gary Windo, who didn’t play like Paul Desmond, he played closer to Archie Shepp, got permission to go into the cockpit and serenaded the pilot. So when we land, I see there are customs people and police on the runway, and I think, that’s it, we’re all going to end up in jail, but they were there to welcome us, and hurry us out of the airport – just keep moving out of here! Safety in numbers!“
Time for some music. The double album consists of four side-lengths continuous pieces of music, simply named part 1,2,3 and 4. Tippett may have been influenced by the same format of Soft Machine’s Third album. Here is Septover Energy part 2:
One significant aspect of Centipede is the participation of South African musicians, including sax player Dudu Pukwana, trumpet player Mongezi Feza and bassist Harry Miller. Moving from their troubled homeland in the early 1960s along with other great musicians such as pianist Chris McGregor and drummer Louis Moholo, they quickly became influential on the jazz scene in England. Tippett talked about them with great admiration: “They were the first band I heard in London, and I just couldn’t believe my ears. There was Chris McGregor, who was white, and that was one reason they left South Africa, because they couldn’t play together. They did, but you know, you weren’t allowed to play together and you couldn’t play to mixed audiences. They suffered their exile with great dignity. Eventually, a year later, we became friends, and they liked my sextet. They all died – they never got home, they never saw Mandela leave prison. They never saw the end of Apartheid. They couldn’t go and visit their mum or dad, because they may not get out again. All very, very sad, and shocking when you look back on it, shocking.“
One spectator of this musical experience was a young Mike Oldfield, who later selected it as one of his 10 favorite albums of all time, explaining why: “When we were on the road with Kevin Ayres and the Whole World, everybody was talking about Centipede: ‘Oh, have you seen Centipede?’ They were this band led by Keith Tippett. Robert Fripp produced the album. And at one point, we ended up on the same bill as them. Amazing. They had this huge orchestra – 40, 50, 60 people. There were classical strings, jazz saxophone, electric guitars. They had singers, there were just so many people up there. The drummer was Robert Wyatt. He was Kevin’s friend from Soft Machine and the whole thing was just incredible. Such a great band, Centipede, and it became my mission as a young musician to be able to do something like that myself one day. It probably led me to Tubular Bells: that idea of having one long piece of music played on lots of different instruments with lots of changes. It was a tremendous influence.”
Some more music: The album closer Septober Energy – Part 4, based on the track Green and Orange Night Park from the previous year’s album Dedicated To You, But You Weren’t Listening:
But all good things come to an end, and Centipede was no exception. After downsizing the band and performing a few last shows at the end of 1971, Tippett retired the band: “It was done innocently – it could only have been done innocently, if it had been done to make money, it would’ve failed anyway. And I didn’t close it down because of logistics. I didn’t want to just go out on the road for eighteen months. I was still serving my apprenticeship, I was in the early years of my apprenticeship as a professional.” Humble words.
I will let Keith Tippett close this article, summarizing this amazingly productive period in his musical career with an eye on the cultural possibilities of those times: “You must remember that the 70s was a very flourishing artistic time. There was so much going on, there was a gig every two days. I mean London was culturally thriving, right through from theatre to contemporary visual arts. It was the extension of the swinging 60s up until the mid 70s and then the political climate changed, obviously affecting the artistic climate.”
If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like these artist retrospectives: