I like to think that the music establishment today, for the most part an anaemic cross between academia and ignorance, could, if it so wanted, raise Keith Tippett’s status; after all, the Bristol-born master has never been fully acknowledged as the multi-talented composer and (above all) great pianist that he is, except by a select group of aficionados. It’s a hard job finding just one album from such a large and important oeuvre that deserves to see the light of digital reworking; as a self-confessed Tippett admirer I could come up with more than a few equally essential records that would fit in this space. For starters there’s the graceful, profound double LP The Unlonely Raindancer (Universe, 1979), Tippett’s first solo dip into a magnificent world of introspection once memorably described by Piero Scaruffi as “New Ageish” (risking a lawsuit if ever Mr.Tippett sees his website). I’d also recommend the septet A Loose Kite In A Gentle Wind Floating With Only My Will As An Anchor (Ogun, 1984), a rite of passage between the pianist’s 1970s exuberance and his subsequent more withdrawn approach. That said, the fact that nowadays you have to fork out several large denomination banknotes to get The Dartington Concert on eBay (assuming you’re lucky enough to find it) is a real scandal, as this is really one of the crowning glories of Tippett’s solo discography. At this point in his career – rewind back to 1992 – with three chapters of Mujician and a couple of four-handed beauties with Howard Riley (First Encounter and In Focus) already behind him, the will to celebrate a recently departed friend inspired our man to the highest spheres of creativity in one of the most intense piano recordings you could have the good fortune to experience.
Recorded on the 2nd of August 1990 in the Great Hall during the Dartington International Summer School, the 47 minutes and 49 seconds of this disc are taken up with a single piece, a marvellous homage to the late Dudu Pukwana entitled “One for you, Dudu”. After a few seconds of silence, polite applause welcomes the artist, who wastes no time in attacking the piano with a series of figurations that are totally decipherable even in their dissonant complexity. Fingers hammer the keyboard but find a myriad of sweet spots, like jogging in a minefield yet somehow knowing there’s no danger of being blown away. It’s hard to find a pianist capable of generating the rumbling force that Keith Tippett conjures up when exploring the lower registers of this complex apparatus; contrarily to the ultra-rapid detailed counterpoint and bazooka-like clusters of Cecil Taylor (it’s a mystery as to why many compare the two, since their two styles are vastly different), Tippett’s sound is like hyperventilating strange perfumes in an obscure ceremony, submerging the listener in a harmonic quagmire. After more than 15 minutes of fantastic digital juggling, the focus shifts to the extreme high register in a torrential cloudburst of complex scripts and codes transformed and modelled by Tippett’s manual dexterity and abundant inventiveness into a quintessential demonstration of how technique can be bent to heart’s desire. After a quotation of Satie’s “Gymnopedies” over a roaring cascade of repeated superimposed left hand arpeggios, objects are placed on the strings in classic Tippett fashion for several minutes of prepared piano in which the sound becomes at one and the same time transcendental and extremely concrete, in a sort of post-mortem reflection on his recently deceased friend that slowly morphs into a celestial cloistered zither-like soliloquy featuring one of Tippett’s most distinctive colours, that metallic “zing” of prepared strings that underpins his advanced explorations, not only in his solo performances but in his beautiful duets with his wife Julie Tippetts. We’re nearing the end of the performance and all begins to slow, vital forces lying spent on tear-stained ground, while our shaman brings this amazing improvisation to its worthy conclusion, the awareness of sorrow and the romantic communion of silence and meaning. He calls out “Doooo-Doooo” and silence falls, only to be broken by the rapturous ovation. An utter masterpiece – reissue it.