Jazz for Modernists 8 – Interview with Julie Tippetts and Keith Tippett (Part 1)

Jazz for Modernists 8 – Interview with Julie Tippetts and Keith Tippett (Part 1)

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series James Thomas on Jazz

Julie Tippetts and Keith Tippett have been at the forefront of improvisational British music and composition for over 45 years. Considered “one of the foremost vocalists in the field of European contemporary jazz and improvised music”, our readers will, of course, be familiar with Julie’s wonderful, soulful singing in the 1960s with Brian Auger and Steampacket. Since 1969, she has worked with Keith and many others in the fields of free jazz, poetry, improvisational music and, occasionally, soul and r ‘n’ b. Keith has led various ensembles such as Centipede, Ark, Tapestry and Mujician and collaborated with dozens of musicians across the fields of contemporary jazz, rock, improvisational and classical music since 1967. His brilliant piano playing can be heard on recordings made with, among many others, Louis Moholo, Stan Tracey, Howard Riley, John Tilbury, King Crimson, Robert Wyatt, and Shelagh Mcdonald. Julie and Keith kindly agreed to talk to Jazz for Modernists about their long musical partnership, thoughts on music-making and plans for the near future.

01: What projects are you both currently working on, separately and together?

KEITH: Plans for another CIS (Couple in Spirit) album. Masterclasses and solo performances in Australia this year. Incidentally, a new solo album has just been released, Mujician Solo IV Live in Piacenza (Dark Companion Records, 2015). Working with Pino Minafra’s Minafric at festivals in Italy…working at the Ravenna Festival as a duo and future work with the Archipelago Orchestra in Europe.

JULIE: Keith and I are planning a new “Couple in Spirit” CD. We’re performing in Italy with the duo and Pino Minafra’s Orchestra. Martin Archer and I are preparing CD number 5 and have put an ensemble together which has been invited to perform in Canada in May.

02: A couple of years ago, Julie read her poetry at the Vortex in Dalston, London, to improvised accompaniment from Keith. How do you both conceptualise the relationship between poetic sound/meaning and the piano and other instruments?

KEITH: There is a big difference between the spontaneous composition of CIS (with or without Julie’s poems) and my accompanying of Julie’s poems. In the latter, the words are the primary focus. The poems that Julie decides to use/or not with Couple in Spirit are part of the whole sound world. Actually, we have only ever done one poetry/music concert. Perhaps as it was so well-received, we should do more.

JULIE: As long as I can remember, I have written thoughts down in the form of poems or lyrics, whether fabricated imaginings or drawn from true-life experiences. Several years ago I compiled an anthology of selected poems which I began to take on stage to recite, sing or half-sing during improvisation performances. Total improvisation is completely unprepared and ‘plucked from the air’ with no preconceived structure or landmarks. A selection of my poems is treated in the same way as my various small percussion instruments. They are there to draw from, either partially or in completion, or not referred to at all. Sometimes I have a table prepared on stage and never use anything, but they are there if I hear a place for them. Many of my poems, or parts of them, seem to work well with other instruments, and Keith is a master at colouring and creating atmosphere, so there can be many such inclusions in our duet performances.

03: Poetry enjoys a long association with jazz. In Britain, for example, Michael Horowitz, Pete Brown & the New Departures crowd in the 1960s, Michael Garrick’s collaborations with Norma Winstone and John Smith and, of course, Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood suite, based on Dylan Thomas. Other than Julie’s work, Keith, have you ever set a poetic work to music or been inspired by a particular poem?

KEITH: The short answer is no. However, sometimes I put the music to the words (eg “Sun-the Living Son” (from Mary Wiegold’s Songbook), the last song of From Granite to Wind etc.). But more often than not, the words are sculpted to the music (for example, “The Monk watches the Eagle”, “Film Blues”, “A Song”).

04: Julie, how long have you been writing poetry? What and who are your poetic inspirations and what are your aims when writing?

JULIE: As with music, my love of poetry covers many types and styles of writing. Reading a wonderful poem can trigger off your own thought forms in streams of imaginings. Likewise, certain states of mind or moving situations or observations can start the unstoppable flow. When writing poetic forms to music, it is the music which tends to dictate what to write. It’s unexplainable really.


05: Can you tell me a little bit about how you both met and started making music together in the late 1960s?

KEITH: Julie came to a gig at the 100 Club, Oxford Street. She was managed by the late Georgio Gomelsky who had just signed myself and the Sextet. I, of course, was well aware of who she was, and a few days later was excited to be asked to play and write some arrangements on her 1st solo album 1969. A fantastic album, with some fantastic musicians performing on it.

JULIE: We had the same manager for a while, and he introduced us. He played me some of Keith’s recordings, and I remember thinking…”I’ve been waiting to hear music like this, without even realising it”. I was preparing pieces for the 1969 album, and it became obvious that Keith would be ideal to do some arrangements for it. Luckily, he agreed, and it became our first collaboration. I loved, and still love the outcome. That album was my first solo in my own right. The musicianship was fantastic, and I can’t really fault it to this day. It holds so many memories and opened so many musical doors.

06: Keith, you were born and raised in Bristol. What was your introduction to jazz and did the city have many modern jazz clubs or venues when you lived there?

KEITH: My introduction to jazz of any sort was Kenny Ball and his version of the Russian folk tune known to the record buyers as “Midnight in Moscow”. All the music I had heard up to that point (1962) had been western classical music and church choral music. I was studying piano, had been a chorister, was playing with the Bristol Youth Brass Band and was to go on and study the organ. However, this was pre- television (in our house) and it was the radio that delivered this wonderful music to me. I formed a ‘trad’ band with friends at school and performed traditional jazz at weddings/care homes/1 radio broadcast (BBC Bristol)/cabaret at weekends (at Talk of the Town nightclub) chaperoned by the banjo player’s dad. We were not allowed to attend pubs or jazz clubs as we were too young.

07: Julie, you came to improvisational music and freer jazz singing styles after a career as a successful rhythm and blues singer with Steampacket and Brian Auger’s Trinity. During that period, did you listen to or see much free jazz in London, perhaps Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler?

JULIE: I was working constantly with Brian Auger for 4 years and seldom had the chance to hear other performers unless they were on the same bill as us. I remember there was a festival with Pharoah Saunders playing, which enticed us to try our set beginning with an unprepared “free” improvisation. Not sure how it worked at the time, but it was a taster of what was to be later developed on my own musical journey. As a band, we all took our favourite types of music on the road with us, and jazz was always one of the choices. My dad, being a trumpeter and band leader, who I sang with when I was 16, introduced me to many different musical forms, including jazz, Latin American and also Caribbean calypso. My mum loved Nellie Lutcher, Louis Jordan, Frank Sinatra etc, so my musical hunger was well fed from a variety of recipes. My own particular passions were Ray Charles, Tamla Motown, Oscar Brown Jr, Nina Simone and the Blues greats like Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee etc, and lots of African music and Flamenco guitar.

08: Keith, your first two LPs as leader of the Keith Tippett Group were you are here…I am there, recorded in 1969 and Dedicated to You, But You Weren’t Listening, from a year or so later. Both feature the brass triumvirate of Elton Dean (alto/saxello), Marc Charig (cornet) and Nick Evans (trombone). Were these records the summation of ideas going back to 1967?

KEITH: They were not the complete spectrum of the various music we were involved in during this period. But it would be true to say that at that moment Dedicated to you was typical of what the sextet was playing at that time.” You are here was released so late after the actual recording (a problem between Giorgio and Polydor) that we were not playing that material anymore and as young musicians, we were maturing rapidly. Also, we were working with many other musicians and ensembles.


PART 2 coming soon…


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James Thomas

James Thomas was born in Bristol just the wrong side of 1970 (1971). His first encounters with the 1960s were his two-year-old elder brother’s reminiscences of the Moon Landing (since deleted by the BBC) and an afternoon in 1975 listening to the Beatles with his parents. He remembers 2-Tone and the ’79 revival, but was the one in his primary school still wearing flares until he persuaded his mum to buy him a black Harrington jacket (a stylish-enough copy by Burtons) and asked a hair stylist to make him ‘look like Suggs’. In the 1980s he became obsessed with almost every aspect of the 1960s, whether it were Star Trek, the length of George Harrison’s hair in March 1965 or the first colour TV broadcast of a cricket match (he thinks it was 1968). After being side-tracked by progressive rock (an ongoing guilty pleasure), James came to his senses in 1986 on seeing footage of Booker T and the MGs and Otis Redding on a programme celebrating the 60th anniversary of television. A flirtation with ‘indie pop’ (in the bowl-cut and anorak days) led to too much introspection, but also a new interest in the psychedelic sounds of the 1960s that seemed to go hand in glove with a liking for The Pastels and The Razorcuts. A summery afternoon in the jazz tent at Bristol’s annual (and long gone) Ashton Court Festival in 1989 opened his mind to the sounds of Lee Morgan, Horace Silver, Art Blakey and most forms of modern jazz. In 1990, James attended his first proper 60s club night, the revered Kaleidoscope Pop! in Leeds. On his return from the North in 1992, he developed a new commitment to Mod culture. He recalls early Untouchables Brighton New Year rallies and in 1994 moved to London. A real education for him (in so many ways...) was a period in Barcelona (1997-2002) where he helped out with the Magic in the Air club for a year or two and where his IQ was permanently reduced by a record dealer who made him clean vinyl for four weeks in a windowless room. After a decade or so in the West Country, he is now living again in London, where he plans to write about jazz, meet like-minded people and study the history of the cravat.

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July 9, 2016 By : Category : Bands,Front Page,Interviews,ModJazz,Music,UK Tags:, , , , ,
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