The two through-improvised solo piano sets that Keith Tippett conjured at London’s Café Oto were so rigorously constructed that they gave credence to the somewhat contradictory notion of spontaneous composition. Opening statements became recurring motifs and tangential fragments re-appeared as major themes. The technique was dazzling, emotions were strong and his musical compass seemed to know no bounds. In lesser hands, it would have been a bit show-offy, but as each set faded to silence, the tangle of detail finally clicked into place, leaving an overarching sense of order and purpose.
Tippett was a central player in the late-1960s UK jazz resurgence, went on to record with King Crimson, and has appeared on more than 100 albums. He still performs regularly, but his London appearances have been sparse of late.
I last saw him at the Vortex, playing in an inspiring duet with fellow pianist Stan Tracey. At times during this gig too, there was so much to take in that it seemed there was more than one pair of hands on the go. Tippett uses his extraordinary two-handed independence to juxtapose whole musical traditions, let alone contradictory movements and lines, and adds a third dimension by plunking, bending and scraping the strings while doctoring the piano’s innards with an assortment of woodblocks, shakers, ornaments and toys. He is as virtuosic inside the piano as he is on the keyboard.
The first set started with a rumbling low-register riff that broke into fragments. Bleak chords delivered death-march sentiments and a funky undertow implied hope. There was a rollick and then Tippett roared through marches, cruised through baroque and juxtaposed plucked Delta themes with a haunting bass-note line. He finished with a prolonged silence, and a nod of the head cued applause.
The second set was equally rich, but the performance had a different shape, with an initially abstract palette and more sustained moods. It opened with sparse downbeat chords and twangs, moans and tinkles, conjured from inside the lid, before jazzier influences came to the fore – block-chord modernism and the gospel blues. Much was to follow before the pianist’s well-spaced strums faded to silence, and a rare Café Oto ovation.