Weaving the tapestry of jazz

Visiting jazz pianist Keith Tippett explores three decades of South African connections in conversation with GWEN ANSELL

‘SERIOUS musicians have to make a choice,” says visiting UK jazz pianist Keith Tippett. “Are they going to be curators or creators?”

The question is typical of the man, whose own three-decade career has spanned jazz, jazz- rock, improvised and contemporary serious music. Tippett is in South Africa with his current ensemble Mujician for a two-week concert and workshop tour in collaboration with Zim Ngqawana and Ingoma. The tour is designed, in part, to pay homage to the jazz legacy of South Africans Chris McGregor and the Blue Notes (Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza, Ronnie Beer, Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo) who left South Africa in the early 1960s and who became highly influential players in the transformation of the European modern jazz scene.

Tippett remembers the impact of the Blue Notes with affection and respect. “I’d just come up to London from Bristol to try and enter the professional music scene. I had a day job folding cardboard boxes and stayed in a tiny bedsit with no piano. I’d carved notches into the edge of a wooden table so that I could practise. I was lonely and I was broke. One night I went into Ronnie Scott’s old place on Gerard Street and the Blue Notes were playing.

“I’d heard John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Charles Mingus — but I was bowled over by these guys. There was an inherent freedom and flexibility in the playing, coupled with impressive technique and with a robust muscularity that I’d never heard live before. To a young Englishman like me, they sounded very African.”

Tippett went on to secure a music scholarship and later to form the Sextet, which laid the foundations of his own musical success. During a residency in Oxford Street’s 100 Club, “we really became friends with the South Africans. There was a lot of cross-fertilisation on the scene, and we played with everybody, but the Blue Notes — sometimes more than other British musicians — enfolded us and encouraged us. Socially too. They were the people we hung out with.”

Tippett’s own career has moved in a variety of directions since then. In the 1970s he was best known for the 50-piece jazz-rock orchestra Centipede, which, said Melody Maker, “has done more than almost anybody else … in breaking down barriers [between] jazz, rock and classical music”.

He has toured extensively, leading a number of different groups (including a collaboration with a Georgian ensemble in Tbilisi), scored films and composed for classical musicians such as the Balanescu String Quartet. As a teacher, he was responsible for opening up the Dartington International Summer School to jazz and improvised music.

But he’s always maintained a South African connection, in various musical partnerships – — McGregor composed music for his later band, Brotherhood of Breath, while staying with Tippett — and latterly as a member of the UK-based Dedication Orchestra, founded to keep the South African legacy alive.

‘Guys from the Blue Notes had told me how beautiful South Africa was. I’d always wanted to see it, but morally and politically I would not come during apartheid. Now I’m tremendously excited about this visit.”

Mujician, Tippett’s current group, includes Paul Dunmall on reeds, Paul Rogers on acoustic bass and Tony Levin on drums. Tippett describes Mujician’s approach as “spontaneous composition — free jazz, if you like. We don’t use a preconceived composition to improvise around: we carve our musical architecture from the air. But jazz — which I’d characterise as music at least 51% improvised — is a huge tapestry and we’re part of the same pattern as bebop, mainstream, all the other kinds of jazz.”

Tippett worries about an exclusionary definition of the music — that’s where the “curators” come in — which seeks to freeze jazz at one stage of its evolution. “Jazz is probably the fastest growing art form of this century. It’s now touching fingers with contemporary classical music, with all sorts of things, like jungle. I hear a lot of jungle in our house, because my son’s crazy about it, and it’s definitely interesting.”

Where Tippett becomes wary is around the over- respectful revisiting of past styles; music which, he says, strikes him as “tired — a lot of things which sounded like jazz but probably aren’t. It’s hard to say where the music is really going next. People will always find a new corner of the tapestry to develop. And the musicians who set out to be creators are going to get rebuffs, and they’ll make mistakes — but if you don’t make mistakes, you’re cheating.”

The British pianist is reluctant to predict what will come out of his collaboration with Ngqawana. Ngqawana’s group includes for these concerts veteran trumpeter Dennis Mpale, Andile Yenana on keyboards, Herbie Tsoabi on bass and Kevin Gibson on drums, plus US guests trombonist Barry Olssen and percussionist Valerie Naranjo. It’s the chance to explore this combination of approaches that Tippett finds exciting.

“Our role — the role of all musicians — is to move people; to remove them from chronological time and leave them with a lasting afterglow. That’s what we hope to do in South Africa.” And he adds, in an unself- conscious reminder that he’s still a child of the 1960s, however, far his music has travelled: “We’re coming here with love in our hearts.”

The New Notes Tour kicks off in Johannesburg at Mega Music on April 26; it moves to the Bat Centre in Durban on May 3, and to the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town on May 4. Workshops will also be held in all three centres. For details, phone The Music Network at (011) 487- 1400

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