It’s a Wednesday night in Dalston, in the unlikely – yet packed – jazz bar that is the Vortex; jazz fans flock here from all over London and the southeast to listen to music and musicians in reverent silence and cramped surroundings. I have a hard wooden chair at a tiny fake marble table within 20 feet of one the UK’s most quietly celebrated and versatile of contemporary musicians. Keith Tippett – big band leader, composer, pianist and master of free improvisation – speaks in hushed tones without use of a microphone, and I hear every word. We are in UK jazz’s highest temple.

Tippett is joined on stage by some of the country’s finest players in a line-up that includes Tippett regulars Pete Fairclough on drums, Paul Dunmall and Ben Waghorn on saxes, and Julie Tippetts on vocals. Completing the band are Thad Kelly on bass and saxophonists Kevin Figes and Sam Mayne. The musicians play with intoxicating intensity. The dynamics and dynamism of which they are capable – perhaps especially in a venue of this size – are apparently boundless. At various points in the music Keith entreaties the band to ‘burn’, with his trademark hand signals and that mischievous, childlike sparkle in his eyes; the audience, meanwhile, sit spellbound, swept along by the swirling, angular, moody, dark, jaunty, wild, tight and anarchic mix that is the trademark of any ensemble performance with Tippett at its helm.

Tippett’s piano playing is unique – he contributes colours, contours and counterpoint; conjuring magic from the soul of the instrument in ways that no-one else approaches. In composition, direction and performance he is by turns playful and mournful, bluesy and avant-garde.  Drummer Fairclough is a long-time musical partner of Tippett’s, and it shows in Fairclough’s sensitivity to his leader’s every compositional and directorial twist; he adeptly drives the band and simultaneously allows free rein to the wild spirits of the front line who strain at the seams of metric and (Tippett’s favourite) circular time. All are tremendous players, with Waghorn and Figes contributing impressive initial solos. However, when peerless music meister Dunmall scorches into an epic sojourn the whole band leaps into fifth gear, his frontline team mates unable to suppress sustained grins of admiration and sheer joy at the master’s effortless, fluid handiwork. As fluent and expressive as Coltrane, Rollins or Peter King, Dunmall’s articulation, phrasing and harmonic overview make him second to none. One striking feature about this band is that from the moment they start to play they sound like a genuine ensemble, with everyone striving for the greater good – even the marvellous Julie Tippetts content for her vocals to dance and flit among the seven threads being woven around her.

As they conclude the magnificent second set, Tippett says in response to the rapturous applause and encore requests, ‘I think we’ll leave it there, on that vibe’. Right on – why would you want him to leave it anywhere else? Tippett has long admired another paradigm-changing instrumentalist, composer and bandleader – Charles Mingus. Mr. Mingus would have dug tonight’s show. Ah um.

2 Responses to “Keith Tippet Octet, Vortex, 25th April 2012”

  1. campervan said

    Highly descriptive post, I enjoyed that a lot.
    Will there be a part 2?

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