Just in Time for Christmas: Some Great Jazz Revisited

Sometimes a musical blast from the past is so exhilarating, I feel moved to share my enthusiasm; such has been the case, in the last few years, with releases or re-releases of works by major jazz figures like John Coltrane, Charlie Haden, Paul Bley, Graham Collier and Mike Westbrook. So I’ve been delighted by the recent re-appearance on CD of two terrific large-scale works by important British pianist-composers: the aforementioned Westbrook, and the late Keith Tippett. 

If memory serves, Tippett first came to my attention in 1970, providing crazily cascading chromatic piano runs on King’s Crimson’s Cat Food, the single selected (wisely since it was surely the best track) from the band’s admirably audacious if uneven second album. I also have dim – very dim – memories of a couple of albums featuring his sextet released on Vertigo, but what did stay with me was a double album released in 1971, Septober Energy, performed by a 50-strong band he had put together named Centipede (after the 100 feet of the musicians involved). Though I’m not sure what happened to my original copy, many of the piece’s riffs and themes stuck in my mind, so I was very pleased when it was revived a few weeks ago on CD. Produced by Crimson’s Robert Fripp (apparently so busy overseeing the studio proceedings that he forgot to record his own contribution on guitar), the album featured many of the top names in British jazz and progressive rock at that time playing alongside 19 musicians on violins and cellos: performers from Tippett’s own outfit, Soft Machine, Crimson, Nucleus and other bands. More than 50 years after it was recorded, the music for the most part still stands up very well indeed.

The piece is basically in four untitled parts, each running around 20 minutes or so to fill the side of an LP, and each offering up two or three thematic motifs, around which the players and singers (five of the latter, including the composer’s wife Julie Tippetts, née Driscoll, who also wrote the poetically suite’s utopian lyrics) improvise – sometimes individually, sometimes in duets, trios or quartets, sometimes as a massive roaring ensemble. The music is highly varied: ten minutes into part one, after the slowly burgeoning fanfare, what sounds a little like a blowsy Albert Ayler tune filtered through twelve-tone technique turns into a mad minimalist chant, only for that to be replaced first by near-free-form chamber jazz for Tippett, Elton Dean (alto sax), Roy Babbington (bass) and John Marshall (drums), then by voices floating over twinned basses. And that’s just for starters. Later there’ll be funky rock rhythms, a trombone quartet, loping jazz riffs, a cappella singing, ritualistic march figures, experimental caterwauling, a meditative piano interlude, a brass chorale faintly reminiscent of some of the band music on Carla Bley’s near-contemporaneous Escalator Over the Hill, more chanting, and a brief, beautifully lyrical closing coda for Tippett’s piano and Mark Charig’s cornet. Occasionally a theme might outstay its welcome a little, but overall Septober Energy is daringly thrilling, cherishably imaginative… and surprisingly coherent. 

Characteristically, Westbrook’s London Bridge – Live in Zürich 1990 feels considerably more ‘composed’, and not only because quite a few of its twelve numbers involve settings of texts – in English, German and French by writers as diverse as Goethe and Sassoon, an anonymous inhabitant of twelfth-century Picardy and the composer’s singer wife Kate Westbrook, who adapted the traditional children’s rhyme that gives the suite its full title: London Bridge Is Broken Down. Westbrook takes a similar route to Tippett in that he augments his eleven-strong jazz ensemble with classically trained musicians – here the Docklands Sinfonietta, comprising 35 strings and woodwinds – but while he leaves plenty of space for improvisation, the suite generally feels more tightly structured than Septober Energy. Inspired by places he visited while touring with Kate and others in Europe prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the piece doesn’t have a detailed narrative, but running throughout there is a focus on life’s challenges and struggles, on conflict, suffering and death, which again provides a sense of coherence. Which is not to say it is musically any less wide-ranging than the Tippett (or indeed less epic – the whole thing lasts around two-and-a-half hours). There are touches of rock, cabaret (Kate Westbrook’s singing is as theatrical as ever), classical, serialism, swing, bebop, free-form, electronics and densely textured orchestral writing of an almost Ellingtonian elegance and sophistication, all woven together to produce one of Westbrook’s most ambitious works. (Oh, and besides its scale and invention, London Bridge shares one more thing in common with the Tippett release: the recognisably distinctive guitar of Brian Godding.) Since the original 1988 studio version of the piece is no longer available – and you can listen here to the title track from that recording – this live concert performance, recorded by Swiss radio in November 1990, is a particularly welcome release.

Finally, a few words in connection with another musician who helped to fire my early interest in jazz: the late, very great drummer Paul Motian. Given his demise eleven years ago, it’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing any more releases featuring the man himself – unless, that is, Manfred Eicher finds something as yet unreleased in the ECM archives – but we do have a very appealing alternative in the form of Once Around the Room – A Tribute to Paul Motian, led by saxophonist and long-time Motian associate Joe Lovano and Danish guitarist Jakob Bro, who played in Motian’s band on the 2006 release Garden of Eden. In November 2021, exactly a decade after Motian’s death and despite the challenges presented by Covid, the pair brought together a septet in Copenhagen – slightly unusual in that their ‘rhythm section’ (if such it can be called) included bassists Thomas Morgan and Larry Grenadier, bass guitarist Anders Christensen, and drummers Joey Baron and Jorge Rossy. As It Should Be and For the Love of Paul are by Lovano – their mix of spiky angularity and lyricism suitably evocative of Motian’s own compositions, with Bro’s ringing guitar at time reminiscent of Bill Frisell (the third member of Motian’s trio featuring Lovano); Song To An Old Friend and Pause are by Bro – both gentle, aching, slightly folksy ballads; Sound Creation is an improvisation by the septet, so focused it almost feels composed; and then there is Motian’s own Drum Music, which begins with Baron and Rossy bashing out the jaggedly percussive riff, before the full ensemble joins in, prefacing solos by Bro (pleasingly dirty and dissonant) and Lovano (squalling away to fiery effect). Elsewhere, the drums often appear to take something of a back seat – ironic, perhaps, given that the album’s a tribute to a percussionist – but the disc does generally feel fitting as an evocation of the music of the great man. Furthermore, its specific raison d’être notwithstanding, Once Around the Room succeeds perfectly well in its own right.

Septober Energy is re-released by Esoteric Records; London Bridge – Live in Zürich 1990 is released by Westbrook Records; and Once Around the Room – A Tribute to Paul Motian is released by ECM.

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