Keith Tippett: “Mujician.” Interview by Tony Mitchell


Renowned British jazz pianist, composer, bandleader and improviser Keith Tippett has just concluded a residency with TURA in Perth entitled Mujician Mosaic which involved his collaboration, improvision, and performance with selected ensembles from the Western Australian Youth Jazz Orchestra (WAYJO), the iMprov Program, and the especially selected Mujician Mosaic band. Under the auspicies of TURA New Music, Tippett performed on 7th December with 44 Western Australian musicians in a celebration of his work as composer, performer, improvisor and mentor, after a fortnight of workshopping, at Studio Underground in the State Theatre Centre in Perth. It also involved a solo performance by Tippett in his rehearsal room on 1st December. The project was co-ordinated by Tos Mahoney, TURA’s artistic director. I sent some questions to Keith which he kindly took the time to answer.

Cyclic: I first got to know your music when I was studying Drama at Bristol University in the early 1970s, but I’ve never seen you live. I was a huge fan of Soft Machine at the time, and of course I knew your album Dedicated to You But You Weren’t Listening, on which you played with Robert Wyatt and Elton Dean. Can you say something about that record?

Keith Tippett: That was the second album I did with the sextet – Elton Dean, Marc Charig on cornet, Nick Evans on trombone, Robert Wyatt on drums, Brian Spring on drums – who was our regular drummer – a New Zealand bass player whose name escapes me [Bill Kristian, aka Werimu Aata Teransiamoa Karaitiana] – Gary Boyle on guitar, and a conga player whose name escapes me [Gary Uta]- it was a long time ago. But this record, I actually think it stands up very well. I suppose if you pigeonhole things, that would be regarded as jazz rock, but it wasn’t conventional jazz rock – we did quite a few improvised music tracks on there as well. But I really like that record, I still like it.

Cyclic: You went on to play in the late Elton Dean’s bands. He was obviously a musician you held in high regard.

Keith Tippett: Well, of course, that goes without saying. Elton, Nick, Mark and I were affectionately called in the late 60s, early 70s, ‘the four musketeers’ on the London scene, and we actually lived together before we settled down. Elton used to play in my bands, I used to play in his, it was as simple as that. It was a very fluid scene, the late 60s, early 70s in London, and not just in jazz/improvised music. I was working with people like Robert Wyatt and his band Symbiosis, with Robert Fripp and King Crimson, I was working with Julie [Driscoll] of course, who became my wife, I was doing things with contemporary people – Centipede, for example, a fifty piece orchestra which consisted of people from the Royal Philharmonic, musicians from Nucleus, Soft Machine, King Crimson, the jazz scene – very many established jazz players like Ian Carr, Alan Skidmore, Mongezi Feza, Dudu Pukwana, from the Blue Notes, and the singers Mike Patto – a rock singer – Maggie Nichols, Julie – so that was a little document of what was happening on the scene. It was recorded in 1971. … So there was a lot of fluidity. I was playing in Louis Noholo’s bands, he was playing in mine, Harry Miller’s bands, he was playing in mine, Elton’s bands, he was playing in mine, Ian Carr’s bands, Nick Evans’s bands, and so on and so on. So it wasn’t that I held Elton in high regard, it was just that we were friends, and I played with a lot of other saxophone players in that period as well.

Cyclic: I still have a vinyl copy of Centipede’s Septober Energy which was a monumental work from 1971, still unique. As Robert Wyatt said in the sleevenotes, ‘it’s the happiest group we’ve ever worked in’. What were your ‘murky motives from dreaming up this insane travelling circus’, as Wyatt also said?

Keith Tippett: Murky motives? It was just so simple! We had so many friends, Julie and I – we were married by then – from right across the scene, from improvised music, jazz, soul, rock ‘n’ roll, and classical – western classical. It wasn’t so much contemporary music, but the standard fare that orchestras put on – Beethoven, etc, and we were all under 25, certainly under 30 years old, and everybody in that band were friends of ours, and we knew their work. And Julie even thought I was crazy, but I started ringing people up, and asking ‘would you play this piece’, and they were saying, ‘wow’, and nobody really thought it would come to fruition, but it did. I had to get a gig, and so at the time, the London jazz society – which no longer exists – was raising money to buy premises in London. So they approached me and said, ‘if you put on the gig, and we arrange it, and it’ll be a big thing, we’ll publicise it and use it as a fundraising venture for us, and we’ll arrange the rehearsals’, which took quite a bit of time.

The technology wasn’t very good in the early 70s, and the sound checks used to take four hours – looking back, the folly of youth! Anyway, it was amazing, we did good gigs, we did bad gigs, in hindsight, the jazz critics, of course they wouldn’t have got it anyway, because it’s not pure jazz, but it’s a little capsule of what was happening in London, and I personally think that it’s been under-valued, and I don’t say that rashly – I know I’m saying something in print, about something I have done, but I think that’s a very important document of what was happening, not just in London, but in Europe. And it was done innocently – it could only have been done innocently, if it had been done to make money, it would’ve failed anyway. And I didn’t close it down because of logistics – RCA picked it up very quickly and paid for a lot of our transport, and wanted to keep it going and going and going … I’m joking now, but maybe they would’ve liked it on ice, and with elephants, they wanted to keep it going!

They used to hire a aeroplane for us, so all the cellists, all the double bassists, could take their instruments inside the plane … I remember flying to Bordeaux once, on our own plane, the stewardesses were normal stewardesses, it was a normal flight, but it was just us … and in those days you could smoke on planes, and when they said you can take your seatbelts off now, and smoke, and suddenly I’m beginning to smell this wonderful smell, these big spliffs being pulled out! And I can remember one stewardess’s face, and suddenly – I think it was Barry Guy, or one of the bass players, took the case off the bass, and started jamming, and there were saxophone players, I would say a third of the and were having a jam session at 30,000 feet.

It was quite something, and Gary Window, who didn’t play like Paul Desmond, he played closer to Archie Shepp, got permission to go into the cockpit and serenaded the pilot. So when we land, I see there are customs people and police on the runway, and I think, that’s it, we’re all going to end up in jail, but they were there to welcome us, and hurry us out of the airport – just keep moving out of here! Safety in numbers! I was 21, and I had this 50 piece band. I stopped it because I was 21, and I didn’t want to be doing that for the rest of my life! I had other things to do. Like I didn’t want to join King Crimson, not because I didn’t like King Crimson, I had great respect for the band, but I wanted to be doing other things, I didn’t want to just go out on the road for eighteen months. I was still serving my apprenticeship, I was in the early years of my apprenticeship as a professional.

Cyclic: At the time you were also playing in King Crimson as a session musician, so you were incredibly versatile from the beginning, like a lot of jazz musicians at the time, playing rock music as well. Was this primarily a survival mechanism?

Keith Tippett: No, not at all, again, friendship.

Cyclic: Another astonishing project from the perspective of now was your album with folk singer Shelagh McDonald, who of course subsequently disappeared. Can you talk about that experience?

Keith Tippett: My late mum is southern Irish, and when I hear Celtic music my heart beats faster – Scottish, Irish, Welsh or English. I remember Shelagh – it was a very beautiful, calm session, and I think I just went in, I was given chords, and that was it – do the session, get it right, and get out, and I’m afraid that’s all I can remember. I did things with Ian McDonald, who was working in a similar area of music, and also Keith Christmas, and they were all working within the same genre. I was really young, and on the scene and living in London, and they chose me, instead of many, many other fine pianists who could have done the job as well.

Cyclic: You’ve done piano duos with the late Stan Tracey, Howard Riley and others. What appeals to you about this format?

Keith Tippett: Well it started off with Stan Tracey, who of course was a generation older than me. It was sad when he died – it really was. He was into his 80s, and lived life as he wanted to. I was very close to Stan, and it turned out that he had two grand pianos in his front room – he was baby-sitting one of them. I’d been speaking to his wife Jackie[who died in 2009], and said it’d be wonderful to do piano duets. Anyway, they rang me, and we went over and had a session, and it worked out so well, that that was the start of the duets. We actually wanted to call it TAT for Tat, but Jackie, who was Stan’s manager, wouldn’t have it. She put her foot down, so it was TNT.

We dd another one which has been released in the last few years, on his son Clark’s label, Steam, which was started by Stan and Jackie, which I think is far superior to the 70s one. And we’ve done concerts as recently as four years ago – they didn’t stop in the 70’s. They weren’t often, because it costs a lot of money to put on two pianists, but the last one we did was in the Barbican in London, which is a huge concert hall. It was a celebration of his 80th birthday, so I was honoured to be invited to that. He had his big band and his octet. We did these concerts, but promoters have to supply two pianos which are compatible – same size, they don’t have to be the same make, but same power, and you’ve got to hire the hall. Sometimes I think the hiring of the pianos outweighed our fees, so we didn’t do it every week, but on special occasions. Howard Riley also, I did one quite recently with him at the Pizza Express in Soho in London. That was a reunion after 30 years. Unfortunately Howard now has Parkinsons, but he’s still playing, God bless him. And I’ve done a few others, with other people, but they’re the two main ones, in terms of getting things recorded.

Cyclic: You also played with South African musicians like Harry Miller and Louis Noholo-Noholo, and later toured South Africa. Can you talk about this?

Keith Tippett: In 1966 I hadn’t quite left Bristol. They were South African exiles, and they came to London that year. There was Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza, Johnny Dyani, Louis Moholo, Chris McGregor and Harry Miller came over slightly later and he wasn’t actually in the Blue Notes, and Ronnie Beer, but he didn’t stay so long, and is making catamarans in Ibiza I hear. They were the first band I heard in London, and I just couldn’t believe my ears. Even the British bands were very much under the influence of the American model, and these African guys – there was Chris McGregor, who was white, and that was one reason they left South Africa, because they couldn’t play together. They did, but you know, you weren’t allowed to play together and you couldn’t play to mixed audiences. They suffered their exile with great dignity. Eventually, a year later, we became friends, and they liked my sextet, and there was again a fluidity, I’d play in Dudu’s bands, and Louis’ bands, in Harry Miller’s bands, and Dudu, Louis and Harry were all in Centipede – Harry later on, he’s not on the record. They all died – they never got home, they never saw Mandela leave prison. They never saw the end of Apartheid. They couldn’t go and visit their mum or dad, because they may not get out again. All very, very sad, and shocking when you look back on it, shocking. I mean, even taking into consideration that there is a white tribe of Africa, and we have every right to be there, but to dominate the majority who happens to be a black tribe, is absolutely unbelievable.

And we did go when Apartheid was finished, we were asked to go by the British Council to represent Britain in South Africa – Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, and we played mainly to black audiences, there were a few white people there. And we were also working with some local musicians, whom we assimilated, in Johannesburg. I was with Mujician by the way, this is very important – Tony Levin, Paul Dunmall, and Paul Rogers. And we were going over to do our thing, and then assimilate them, in a later part of the program, and workshops, which I tended to run – the others could, but I tended to take that role. And that was quite an experience. And so all of them, apart from Louis Moholo, who now lives just outside Cape Town, died very young. Mongezi was in his 30s, Chris and Dudu in their 50s, Johnny in his 30s – very sad. Through an accident of birth, and karma, going to London at that time, and getting involved with these people, it really was an honour, and they enriched my life. Some lazy critics say I was influenced by them – not at all, but they inspired me, and I sure value truly greatly their friendship.

Cyclic: You formed the Mujician project in 1981 and played solo projects, then started the quartet in 1988, and used the name for other projects including the current residency in Perth. What’s the rationale behind this name?

Keith Tippett: The rationale was my daughter, who was five at the time – she’s now 38 – was asked on one of her first days at school, ‘what does your father do?’ and she said ‘mujician’ which was really cute, and it conjures up this image of a magician and a musician. So I did a trilogy of vinyl then – they have now been transferred to CD – in the 80s for FMP, Free Music Productions West Berlin. It was Paul Dunmall who actually wanted to form a quartet with Paul Rogers and Tony Levin. They were sitting in my kitchen thinking of names to call it, and I said ‘well, how about Mujician? I’ll relinquish it -’ and they said ‘Yeah!’. And so we played for 25 years until Tony Levin passed away a couple of years ago, and we don’t exist any more. And this [project], Mujician Mosaic, apart from the fact that Mujician is a really good word, and I don’t want to lose the word totally, because I really like it, but also, the three strands of this project, and I suppose the major thrust of this project … The artistic director of Tura, Tos (Mahoney), asked me if I could come up with a name, and so I settled on that. And we all know what a mosaic is, and so these three strands make up this project.


About Author

Tony Mitchell is an honoraray research associate at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has edited a number of books: on global hip hop (Global Noise, 2001), on Australian Popular Music (Sounds of Then, Sounds of Now, 2008), and New Zealand Music (Home Land and Sea, 2011). He is currently co-editing a book about Icelandic music.