June 16, 2020

A tribute to Keith Tippett (1947 - 2020)

I'm not sure this is very well written but I've tried to articulate a personal journey with a true musical legend from my perspective before the moment passes. There are some really lovely historical tributes out there and I urge you read all of them. This, however, is mine :

I'm not good with dates. I think I first met Keith about 25 years ago. It was for a course he was directing with Devon Youth Jazz Orchestra. I don't remember a lot about it to be honest. Keith was an imposing force of nature. A few of the band didn't take to him and grumbled about how strict he was but I liked him instantly. He knew what he wanted and wasn't about to put up with anyone wasting his time. We were there to make great music and work hard. I'd had no experience of free improvisation at that point and he lost me in a few places – I'm still not sure I know what he meant by circular time but I did what I could and he seemed satisfied! I remember nothing else about that interaction except giving him a lift at the end and apologising for all the rubbish on the seat and in the footwell of my car. As I tried to clear stuff out of his way he gamely dismissed my apologies with a 'no problem, this is a musicians car!' then happily chatted all the way to the station.

The next time I saw Keith was as an audient. I'd got a ticket to see three free jazz pianists at Teignmouth Jazz Festival. I forget who the other two were. Probably for the best as they fulfilled my ignorant preconceptions as to what I feared free jazz might be. The sense of having someone do something incomprehensible for a while and then stopping. I just fundamentally didn't get it. I had no framework for understanding what I was listening to. Then Keith performed and a lightbulb went off for me. His grasp of the familiar and unfamiliar, structure, harmony, surprise quite captivated me. He always seemed to know just the right point to change direction to hold my interest. Where I'd felt quite outside the music before I now felt guided through it. I still didn't understand what was going on but it was a wonderful moment to briefly find that moment of connection with something previously so inscrutable.

Sometime around 2004 I attended the Dartington Summer School jazz course led by Keith Tippett and Lewis Riley. A catalyst for that was that my wonderful wife Sophie was adminstrator for two years there. As a result she also got to know Keith and Julie quite well in her own right. Lewis took the more traditional repertoire and Keith worked with us on a selection of his own compositions. You just naturally worked hard with him. It wouldn't occur not to work hard for him because he worked hard for you. We had great music to make and we'd have at it until we did. Where I've seen some people just bang their heads against a wall, disappointed when the band fail to live up to their expectations, ploughing on regardless praying for magic to happen this was a different approach. Keith would constantly be listening and revising. Weighing up the balance between his vision, the capabilities and sensibilities of the players involved and how to get those two things to intersect. I'm sure the versions we eventually made fell short of his ideals but he rarely let it show. It worked and he generated such a great atmosphere of hard work having paid off that it was impossible not to feel a sense of triumph come the final performance.

In 2013 I was booked as a tutor for a course Keith was running for South West Music School. A four day residency to work on a special commission with 40 young musicians. For one reason or another all of their bass students pulled out so I was lucky enough to be part of the performing group working under Keith once again as well my tutoring duties. All those same techniques of balancing compositional intention against performer resources came to the fore again. It was fascinating and inspiring to watch the revisions happen each day as the experience of the previous day suggested slight changes to orchestration or structure might improve the whole. His approach always seemed quite egoless but decisive. Any ideas found wanting could always be replaced by another until the right fit was found. A whole extra dimension to this process for me was added by the daily free improvisation session. In duos and trios, until the whole ensemble had shared the experience, everyone got out front and played for about three minutes. This would be followed by feedback and reflection from performers and listeners alike. An incredible judgement free opportunity to just express. Because Keith took it seriously, openly, sincerely and honestly everyone else did too. It was a really important distinction for me to see the difference between Free Jazz as a style of music and Improvised Music as a concept. He showed that it wasn't a fearless thing to do, there was just nothing to be afraid of. Improvise with empathy, patience and sincerity and nothing can really go wrong.

It was a genuine privilege to be part of that course and gave me the confidence to try many things that I did subsequently. It was also a delight to meet Julie properly too for the first time myself. They both behaved as if I'd known them all their lives and were warm, open and generous with their conversation and time from the moment we arrived. That Keith took the time to phone afterwards and say how much he appreciated my input in making it such a good course, and that should the opportunity arise (apologising in advance that opportunities didn't arise that often anymore) he'd like to do more in the future, was very touching and meant a lot to me.

From there I didn't see Keith for a few years until we moved to Bristol. In the meantime, inspired by the SWMS experience, I ran a free improv night called The Other Compass for a year in Exeter. That in turn led to both an album with the Snow Giants (Mike Outram & Ric Byer) and an album of my own compositions Pointless Beauty – After & Before (Neil Yates, Mike Outram, George Cooper, Mark Whitlam). Without Keith's influence I'm honestly not sure I'd have had the confidence to produce any of those projects.

Nearly a year after we moved to Bristol I responded to a call for help from David Mowat looking for transport to get Keith to a performance at St Stephen's Church for his Gateway to Another Dimension festival. I'd been meaning to get back in touch for some time but I've always suffered with slightly debilitating shyness leading me to put off talking to people for worry they won't want to talk to me. This was an excellent opportunity to say hello with a purpose that could bypass my own issues! Picking Keith and Julie up it was as if we'd only broken off our last conversation yesterday. It's a great gift to be able to make people feel easy to be around you.

Subsequently Sophie and I popped round a few times to catch up properly. They were both very encouraging as ever and it was lovely to feel a friendship deepen. I explained about how valuable I'd found his influence and gave him a copy of After & Before. Again, it was lovely of him then to phone up (always on the landline) to wax lyrical about how much he loved it. I don't mention this for the sake of my own ego, just to illustrate his own generosity of spirit. Neither Keith nor Julie have ever treated me as less than their equal – despite their incredible careers – and while there's no real reason that they should it's something that should be accorded great respect.

At the beginning of 2019 Keith phoned up to ask if I'd be interested in joining a group performing his Granite to Wind project at the Vortex. Keith is always loyal to the players he selects for projects but explained that unfortunately Thad Kelly was no longer able to perform so was I interested in taking over? Obviously I said yes, that would be amazing, and for the first time he wanted to confirm that my acceptance meant the chair was mine from then on. Sadly, ill health meant that the performance had to be postponed. He was incredibly apologetic but wanted to stress that the chair was mine for whenever we could reschedule. To cut a long story shorter this happened a couple more times always concluding with a very apologetic Keith and reassurances that the chair was mine. The most recent possible date being the 14th June 2020.

Corona crushed that possibility and the last note from Keith was to say :

"Dear Everybody, still locked up of course. Just like you are. I hope you are all OK......waiting for the go ahead to start rehearsing...…..What a time in human history!...…much love to you all keith and Julie....I will be in contact......Keith."

Needless to say I'm devastated that Keith never did manage to schedule a performance that enabled us to perform together in a non-educational setting of one of his compositions. I'm indebted to all that he has given me as a bandleader, composer, performer and musician and crushed that I didn't have the opportunity to repay his faith in me in a performance situation with players of his choosing. That might seem like a selfish gripe, and in some respects it is, but I really intend it as an illustration of how much he meant to me and my disappointment that I couldn't return the favour in a situation that was as selfish as he ever got in his music making.

Sleep well Keith. You remain one of life's guiding lights and a constant inspiration to me.

About the author

alswainger

​Al has performed, recorded and taught all over the country and internationally for more than 25 years. Highlights include sessions, tours and workshops with : Peter King, Grice, Paul Jones, P.P. Arnold, Scott Hamilton, Siobhan McCrudden, Gary Bamford, Gilad Atzmon, Mike Outram, Alan Barnes, Ant Law and many more as well as h​is own projects : Pointless Beauty, Biophosmos, Snow Giants and Mahatmosphere. As an educator he has taught for schools, colleges and privately for more than 25 years and has a BA (Hons) / PGCE in Music.

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