Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Review: Keith Tippett at the Purcell Room, Friday 14th November, 2008

A rare beauty... Keith Tippett, playing with a string quartet, in a duo with Stan Tracey and in the second half, his wife Julie.

Starters – the mainly written piece for piano and the Elysian Quartet, 'Linuckia.' Tippett joined the other musicians, looking absurdly young and still affecting the muttonchop whiskers which, with his incongruous outfit of smart jacket, ratty blue jeans and watch and chain attached to his waistcoat gave some bizarre rural image of yesteryear. Squire Tippett, perhaps... The piece opened on strident morse code string patterns to be suddenly swept along by a rolling keyboard figure that travelled from top to bottom, a repeated call and response gesture. The quartet were also required to use some extended techniques – plucking, glissando and assorted scrabbling at their instruments as the piano answered and commented in kind. Tippett was using woodblocks and various foreign objects to interfere with his piano sonorities and timbres – devices he used throughout the evening, producing a wide variety of sounds – from blunted, choked back harpsichord to some wild bass figures that sounded at one point as if Meade Lux Lewis had been fed through a sawmill while performing his old boogie woogie. Coming off the 'serious' art music tradition but bent to his own shapes. (Don't you just love that word 'serious' – as if 'jazz' and its related musics are not). Alongside the sharp, disjointed jags he positioned longer melodic lines that reminded me of some bebop legacy. An intriguing start.

Then another Steinway was hauled into place and Stan Tracy, the old guv'nor of the British modern jazz scene – a full head of greying hair swept back flamboyantly, joined Tippett for a fascinating journey. Tracy is not a Brit jazzer I have followed much, to be honest – a lot of his playing back in the old days seemed to be coming a little too much off Monk for me – although his peers have always rated him highly. Tonight, he joined Tippett's sound space in two improvised duets that referenced jazz occasionally but seemed to be moved by more English ambiances, somehow. Hard to place this music which made it more interesting perhaps – the interplay was fascinating as a figure or fragment of melody was picked up and played with in a seamless reel of notes and clusters, occassionally grounded on a march-like succession of chords. Tracey hit out some of his old dissonant harmonies but, placed in this context, they seemed very much of the moment and transcended the obvious jazz lineage. Stan is certainly ageing well and playing with fire and subtlety – and freshness.

The second half was another duo – Keith joined by his wife, Julie. Who famously took a sideways step off the mainstream some time after her hit records with Brain Auger all those years ago. An old story – but I mention it to praise the integrity of someone who felt moved by other forces to dedicate their lives to the remorselessly thankless genre (in dear old Blighty, anyway) of free improvisation. I'm not a fan of vocalists – improv vocalists even less. But I was hauled out of my prejudice by her performance. Standing tall and elegant in front of what looked like a stall at a craft fair – exotic bowls and odd little instruments – she channelled her wide range of voices – from art music pointillistic stabs and intervallic leaps to stranger spaces, occasionally selecting a device for additional delicate sonorities. Accompanied by Tippett's piano, from his surging stormwind basses to filgree strands of sound produced again by objects placed and manipulated within the piano, this was a magical performance that held the audience tight in a warm embrace. A rare beauty was given... The compere at the beginning of the performance mentioned the spiritual aspect of Tippett's improvisatory muse. The journey we had been collectively offered to take surely and subtly demonstrated that premise. ALong with some subtle wit - did I imagine the tinkly music box effect playing the theme from 'The Godfather' at one point?

Walking out into the mild night and across the bridge over the Thames, I stopped to look at the familiar London skyline and a street musician started playing – alto sax, some nice lines that echoed out into the evening, free music, oddly continuing the inspired performance I had just witnessed...

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