”The jazz scene in Britain was never that exciting. It was always such hard work.” -Pete Sinfield [BBC Prog Rock Britannia, 2009]
Simultaneously with the explosion of “new” post-psychedelic rock music in the United Kingdom in the late sixties, the country’s youth was also breeding a distinctive jazz scene. One of the key figures in the movement was Keith Tippett, born in 1947. As a teenager, he studied piano and church organ, playing with various local bands in Bristol. At the age of 20, Tippett moved to London, wanting to find fulfillment as a jazz musician. Soon, he founded The Keith Tippett Group, a sextet consisting of Elton Dean on saxophone, Mark Charig on cornet, Nick Evans on trombone (all three musicians also contributed with Soft Machine at the time), as well as Alan Jackson on drums and Jeff Clyne upright bass. In January 1970, the band recorded what came to be, You Are Here… I Am There, Keith Tippett’s debut as a bandleader. The album was released on the Polydor label. As a side note, it was at that time that the pianist guested on King Crimson’s second album, In the Wake of Poseidon.
The overall atmosphere and aura of You Are Here… I Am There points at the influences of American jazz musicians such as John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, and Charles Mingus. The record shows a strong tendency, however, towards a distinctive sound that was, at the time, new, embraced by musicians such as Jan Garbarek and Ian Carr. Above all, Tippett’s compositional style bears traces of the artist’s classical training, unveiled by his harmonic and dynamic awareness and careful balance between improvisation and composition. At the same time, in a reasonable dose, the sextet also captures the kind of spiritual aspect of American jazz, particularly powerfully displayed by Albert Ayler, John and Alice Coltrane, and Sun Ra.
A calm, meditative solo passage carefully bowed by Jeff Clyne on upright bass opens the first piece on the album. “This Evening Was Like Last Year (To Sarah)” acts as a thoroughly absorbing foreplay. The crystal-like piano joins the instrument, working towards an uncertain atmosphere. The effective interaction is disturbed by the joining horn section. Very sleepy, yet pronounced notes of a saxophone, cornet, and trombone help the piano grow powerful with the band following the mode it sets. Suddenly, the whole band is given an adrenaline rush, the music becoming louder and more intricate. The dream-like texture of the opening is proficiently combined with wholesome horns. When the drums enter the equation, completing the whole line-up, the composition appears to have finally found its path, becoming less fluid. After reaching the climax, all of the instruments retreat, leaving the piano alone to open “I Wish There Was a Nowhere.” Very quickly, however, bass and drums join, settling on a repetitive groove, a base for what will turn out to be a lengthy jam, for Elton Dean on saxophone. Kurt Vonnegut’s description of Angela Hoenikker’s clarinet playing from his novel Cat’s Cradle would well render Dean’s solo which seems to go ”from liquid lyricism to rasping lechery to the shrill skittishness of a frightened child, to a heroin nightmare.” Soon, the groove fades away with Mark Charig’s cornet taking the lead. The mood becomes very mellow, recalling some of the most beautiful cool jazz ballads of Miles Davis. Unnoticeably slowly, the piece reclaims its weight, with all the musicians exploring countless improvisational regions. After a long piano solo, all of the instruments meet, leading to a beautiful ending of the track, adding a few whimsicalities on the way.
On side two, “Thank You For The Smile (For Wendy And Roger)” is based on a progression that seems a little… contrasted, different. The purpose becomes apparent after a very brief jam, where the wind instruments make a direct quotation of the theme from The Beatles’ hit “Hey Jude.” The listener comfortably lays back thinking ”Oh, okay, so this is the nature of the track, that’s where they are taking me.” Such a tongue-in-cheek interjection is very welcome, adding a bit of spice to the progress of the work as a whole. “Three Minutes From An Afternoon In July (To Nick)” opens with a Peter Brötzmann-esque sax, setting the stage for Nick Evans’ trombone melodies. The bells played by Giorgio Gomelsky, an iconic film maker, impresario, music manager, songwriter and record producer, add a little mysticism. Towards the end, Evans gets an a capella solo, before the dark “aftermath” from the whole band. “Battery Point (To John And Pete)”, a relatively short affair, starts with a carefully designed interplay between the horns, before a quieter passage with added upright bass, on which Jeff Clyne showcases his abilities without the support of the group. “Violence” reminisces bebop in its rapid pace, but utilizes harmonic solutions untypical of the movement. Every musician gets to display their improvisational skill on top of this rhythm. Just like every other instrument before, Alan Jackson is given some time for a drum solo, very energetic and accurate. “Stately Dance for Miss Primm” makes a bit of a difference in comparison to the material of side two with its funky pulse. Listeners should take note of the amazingly-thought wind instrument arrangements in the main theme. Elton Dean plays another wonderful, emotional solo, followed by Nick Evans’ take on improvisation. After the return of the main motif, the piece slowly descends into silence and that’s when we can hear a snippet of Tippett using something different than an acoustic piano. To my ears it sounds like an electric piano of a sort. An interesting mystery indeed.
Keith Tippett’s solo debut, You Are Here… I Am There showcases his distinguished compositional style in addition to exploration of numerous improvisational fields by him and his band mates. The material The Keith Tippet Group have got to offer on this release should be of interest to fans of jazz of musicians such as Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler, and the already-named John Coltrane. However, those, who appreciate the jazzy side of progressive music with bands such as Soft Machine and Nucleus, should definitely get their hands on You Are Here… I Am There. A beautifully-tangled masterpiece!