The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Thursday, August 02, 2007

There has been a tendency among jazz writers of recent times to sideline musicians like Keith Tippett, and perhaps even snigger at them behind their expensively gloved fingers; 2007, and he still thinks that free improvisation and rubbing wine glasses together constitutes the way forward – after all, it’s so old hat, isn’t it, all that revolution and unity talk, it’s so early seventies, all a bit of a childish frippery (pun intended), quite out of keeping with the happy and fulfilled society we have now (i.e. that this sort of thing was fine with Vietnam but makes us feel awkward in times of Iraq).

Or, as with Scott Walker or Kate Bush or any other musician of genuine worth, you could argue that Keith Tippett has simply pursued and developed his singular multidimensional line as rigorously and generously as possible. While the bulk of his work in recent years has concentrated on his solo piano improvisations/compositions, or his long-standing free jazz quartet Mujician, he has never stopped developing his ideas, and the comparative lack of releases from his larger ensembles has inevitably been due to economics rather than unwillingness.

For the last decade or so his Tapestry Orchestra has been his large ensemble of choice; he burst onto the scene in 1970 amid much curious publicity with the gigantic Centipede (100 legs = 50 musicians, although 55 players are listed on the published recording of Septober Energy and live performances would swell the numbers up even further), an assemblage of all the musicians with whom he was working at the time, that glorious time without boundaries or genre creeds, so that groups like Soft Machine, King Crimson, Nucleus, Patto and the Blossom Toes are represented either in greater part or in full, plus most of the British and South African New Thing contingents with whom Tippett was playing regularly and many others besides. While essentially an unwieldy beast – on the Septober Energy album there are among the personnel three drummers, six bassists, eleven saxophonists and a full classical string section – and while Septober Energy itself can now be viewed as a brave but only partially coherent sequence of “events,” it, along with the near concomitant Escalator, helped set my ideas of music in motion, and watching them in performance at the London Lyceum, aged seven, is an experience I have still not forgotten.

Seven years later, at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, my parents and I saw his next big band, Ark, a far more manageable 22-strong ensemble (the name stems from the fact that there were two of each instrument in its line-up), performing his new four-part suite Frames: Music For An Imaginary Film. At the height of post-punk, here was an unashamed extension – not a throwback, but an extension – of 1967 ideals, full of drones, incantations and occasional outbursts of violence as well as surprisingly straightforward post-Ellington jazz voicings, sloppy in the Christian Wolff/Carla Bley sense, but airtight when it needed to be. The subsequent Ogun double album – like Septober Energy, still available on CD – is a work of unalterable but very touchable beauty.

Tapestry was formed in the nineties, and the 2CD set Live At Le Mans which has just been released was recorded in 1998. In certain circles this performance has been spoken of with a sense of awe comparable to Mingus at UCLA in ’65, but Tippett has until now been resolute about not releasing it; the idea was to get the band into the studio, smooth out the rougher compositional edges of the extended work (First Weaving) and put down a definitive recording, but this being an era of the coldest rationalism, economics again ruled this out of the question – as indeed, and far more sadly, did the passing of Tippett’s first saxophonist of choice, Elton Dean, early last year from complications arising from heart and liver disease, not yet sixty; and I suspect that this may have been the decisive factor in the performance’s eventual release.

While there are undeniably rough edges to the structure of First Weaving, both concept and performance are so strong on this record that it simply becomes a joy to hear Tippett heading and directing a large group in the way only he can. This is a comparatively compact twenty-piece line-up, though its resources are so skilfully marshalled that frequently the orchestra sounds as though double that number are playing, without causing the occasional logjams to which Centipede, even at their most powerful, were prone. There is also, as is similarly characteristic of Tippett, a decided focus on the orchestra as one unit rather than a collection of soloists since there are very few soloists throughout the work and quite a lot of collective improvisation work by individual sections, or duets and trios by various members.

Always a fan of Mingus, Tippett nevertheless catches the unwary listener off guard practically from the beginning of the “First Thread” where, after some call and response between the three singers and the two drummers (Louis Moholo and Tony Levin; now that’s what I call a battalion) – the singers uttering “ka-ta ka-ta” like a happier Fuckhead sample from The Drift, the drummers responding with stiff military rolls – the band launches into a joyful gospel vamp (very “Better Git Hit In Your Soul”) over which we have two ecstatic duets, by saxophonists Lee Goodall and Simon Picard, and then by Gethin Liddington (a student of Tippett’s who is aligned to the F-Ire Collective which also spawned Polar Bear, Acoustic Ladyland et al) on trumpet and trusty veteran Malcolm Griffiths on trombone, deliciously sliding over each other’s smears like sheets of chocolate satin.

Then the mood darkens for the “Second Thread,” one of Tippett’s great, slowly escalating incantations; over low, doubtful horns, the singers intone Julie Tippetts’ unrepentantly spiritual lyrics (memes like “Overpowering” and “Overwhelming” gradually mutating into “Oh! Forgiving” and “Oh! Relief”). Then Maggie Nicols is left alone, over a brooding improv trio of flute (Goodall), bass clarinet (Gianluigi Trovesi) and saxello (Dean), initially offering a disturbing mutation of “Lili Marlene” before dissolving into her sotto voce flurries of contained ecstasy.

The Third and Fourth Threads are very closely linked; both take Mingusian post-bop melodic/rhythmic heads as their starting point before developing in other unexpected ways. In the Third Thread this leads to a furious debate between three snarling tenors (Picard, Dunmall and Larry Stabbins) which is eventually resolved by a beautiful, balladic alto solo from Elton. The waltz fragment glimpsed in this section (reminiscent of “Don’t Be Afraid, The Clown’s Afraid Too”) is developed more fully and sinisterly in the Fourth Thread, as various band members, including Dunmall on a squealing set of Northumbrian bagpipes, scribble and growl intensely in front of the backdrop; but this too leads (following a sighing duet between Marc Charig’s cornet and Paul Rutherford’s trombone) into a lyrical ballad section with a fantastic alto solo from Trovesi, the Italian perfectly capturing the sugar/poison blend which seemed to be a characteristic of the Dean/Pukwana/Osborne/Warleigh/Watts school of turn-of-the-seventies Brit improv alto playing.

The Fifth Thread, and the second CD, begin with an astonishing prayer for peace, written and lead sung by Julie Tippetts – and how this remarkable woman has suffered for following her husband into the world of contemporary improvised music; even now her activities arouse derisive reactions from cowering nonentities like Will Hodgkinson, side-sniping in broadsheets about sixties girl singers who ended up somewhere different, eagerly spoonfeeding the showbiz demographic necessary to preserve the façade that process and destination do not matter in music, as if they weren’t indispensable to an ideal society – “Almighty...” the trio quietly sing, “hear my breath on the wind…I can’t…” (meaningful pause) “…let you go.” It is breathtaking and transfers into the world of the holy when, as the trio begin to improvise, the rest of the orchestra begin to play wind-up music boxes; a forest, a blessing of an orchard of wind chimes underlying carefully controlled harmonies of which Brian Wilson would (if he’d followed up, or been allowed to follow up, the implications of “George Fell Into His French Horn”) have been rightly proud.

Towards the end the singers move into a medieval roundelay, which itself provides the segue for the dazzling Sixth Thread, which opens with a merry estampie sung by the third member of the trio, the great Vivien Ellis, in tandem with Oren Marshall’s tuba, even though its merriment is darkly ambiguous (“Scattering nightly a dream to the sleeper/Gathering lightly, she leans to the Reaper”) as her song is interrupted by crosscurrents of brass familiar from the beginning of the fourth section of Frames. The music then explodes into sterling, glistening beams of controlled chaos, which somehow manages to encompass a 500 mph trumpet solo by Pino Minafra – played through a megaphone (!) – which sounds like the ghost of Mongezi Feza trying to regain contact with Earth, an utterly beyond-bizarre vocal breakout into “Let’s Face The Music And Dance,” a grumbling stomach of a conversation between the trombone section and Marshall’s tuba, dancehall chants of “Seven Eleven” and squeals, honks and howls aplenty. Throughout the double-drum approach is shown to work with brilliant force as Moholo and Levin hammer away as though typing with scythes.

After that Tippett can only tie the composition up, and Seventh Thread is perhaps the section which could have done with a little more work. Its opening promise of a straight 12-bar blues is alluring, but never one to rest for long, the orchestra immediately gives way to a gulping and roaring improvisation by the trumpet section, sounding as though they are hauling themselves up by their own rusty pulleys. Then the orchestra returns for some more all-out freeplay before Paul Rogers’ bass drags everyone back to the original opening statement of “ka-ta, ka-ta” and Edinburgh Castle drum rolls and we get a brief moment of collective swing before Tippett ironically – or possibly unironically - signs off with the old Count Basie flourish.

The audience goes wild, even if I suspect that the Seventh Thread was a work still somewhat in progress in 1998; I wouldn’t have minded a few more Brotherhood-ish shoutouts at the end. But Final Weaving is a tremendous listening experience, and the best illustration of the compelling power of Tippett’s music is the fact that so many of the members of Tapestry were also members of Centipede over a quarter of a century previously; there is an exceptional loyalty at work here which must prove heartwarming for the composer. Tippett’s remains a very singular but unbreakably collective compositional vision; I am not sure whether Final Weaving will alter my outlook on music so thoroughly as its predecessors did, but it is unmissable. As ever, Tippett’s sleevenote signs off with his lifelong motto: “May music never become just another way of making money” – and he does so with such a forgiving generosity that you know instinctively and instantly that it is Jools Holland’s fault, not his, that Tapestry haven’t appeared on Friday night BBC2. At least, not yet.

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