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‘The Monk Watches the Eagle’

My last memory of Keith Tippett comes from a night in Berlin in 2015, when he brought his octet to play a new suite, The Nine Dances of Patrick O’Gonogon. He was always edgy before a performance, and this concert was no exception. There was a fine new 9ft Steinway for him to play, tuned twice during the day — once before the afternoon soundcheck, once after. An hour before the start of the concert, however, he went back to the piano, played a few notes, and came to me with an urgent request that it be retuned.

At that point the only thing a festival director can do is keep the artist happy. The piano tuner had gone home hours before. But his home number was found, and he was summoned in time to give the instrument another going-over. (After completing the task, he muttered to me that it had remained perfectly in tune.) Keith and his musicians proceeded to play a glorious set that delighted the audience, who were transfixed when Julie Tippetts, Keith’s wife, materialised next to the piano towards the end to sing “The Dance of Her Returning”. It was a triumph, one of many in his long career.

Keith was a wonderful man and one of the finest British composers of his generation. Following his death n June 2020, the first posthumously released Tippett recording is a piece of which he was specially proud: The Monk Watches the Eagle, a cantata for two saxophone quartets, the BBC Singers, and his wife, Julie, who provided a libretto evoking the last earthly thoughts of a holy man on his deathbed.

The recording is of its first and only performance, performed in 2004 as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, which had commissioned it, and recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 in Norwich Cathedral. Dedicated to his late father, the nature of the work and the setting of the performance remind us that Keith’s early musical experience included spells as a chorister and church organist in his native Bristol.

His whole career showed us that he was comfortable in many idioms, from his astonishing solo piano improvisations to his appearance with King Crimson on Top of the Pops and his marshalling of the extraordinary 50-piece Centipede. The Monk Watches the Eagle finds him flying free of genre, blending the gestures of contemporary classical choral music with perfectly integrated saxophone improvisations — by Paul Dunmall (soprano), Kevin Figes (alto), Ben Waghorn (tenor) and Chris Biscoe (baritone) — and Julie’s powerfully affecting singing.

Keith’s use of his resources here is flexible and imaginative. His deployment of the singers is in a very English tradition of choral music, the voices sometimes soaring up to the 12th century cathedral’s vaulted stone ceiling. There are times when he makes the saxophones sound like a pipe organ powered by human breath; even more astonishing is a passage where you imagine you’re hearing distant gongs and bowed cymbals.

The 40-minute piece is continuous, but for our convenience the CD is programmed with seven divisions. The fourth of them, a 14-minute passage, contains some of the most moving music I’ve heard this year: a series of slow movements featuring lean a cappella vocal writing, a dissonant slow upward swirl of voices and reeds giving way to a glowing melody emotionally related to John Tavener’s “The Lamb”, Julie’s mbira (thumb piano) and her wonderfully poised vocal solo over saxophone harmonies, and the return of the choir, with Biscoe’s soft baritone tiptoeing gently between their legato phrases.

“Now it is silent, and words hang warm,” they sing in this section. “All is calm. All that remains… All that remains in my heart is still. All is still. Now in the quiet — and quite alone — not alone!” But the luminous serenity is disturbed by a writhing Dunmall soprano solo, emerging from a babble of voices, demonstrating that the inherent possibilities of such collaborations did not end with Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Singers. The parallel harmonies of the closing movement have an unadorned elegance reminiscent of plainsong.

It’s a work of great spiritual depth and power, radiating its beams of light as though shining through stained glass — the motif of the cover design. I remember Keith telling me about it with special pride. Now everyone can hear it, and join the long applause that filled the cathedral at the conclusion of a marvellous performance that reveals a different and very precious facet of the soul of a great musician.

* Keith Tippett’s The Monk Watches the Eagle is released on the Discus label. The photograph of Tippett, by Paolo Soriani, is from the CD sleeve.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. John Atkins #

    I knew Julie when she started out on her very successful singing career and send my condolences on her loss.

    December 15, 2020
  2. Conal Dunn #

    There is indeed something deeply spiritual and transcendent about Keith’s playing. After reading your article I was inspired to listen to his duo recordings with StanTracey from the 1970s but in fact of course timeless and astonishingly beautiful. I don’t recall ever listening to the records before. Did you ever hear the two pianists play together live at any gigs or festivals that you curated or simply attended I wonder Richard? I wish I had. But no matter really because their music on the two records I inherited from my late father is gravity defying and intergalactic and has left me apparently still sitting in my centrally heated living room but feeling the cool wind of the Holy Spirit brushing against my face. I’m going to try and preserve the revelatory feeling by drinking some well aged sheng puerh.

    December 16, 2020
  3. Chris Sugden #

    I last saw Keith at the Vortex club in April 2019, performing with Julie, and Paul Dunmall. It was a great gig, the first after his recent illness, and we chatted about the “Dugout club” in Bristol, where he and I both played piano, with me picking up the slot he vacated in 1967. I gave him a copy of a flyer I’d had made for a concert I’d booked for his sextet at Bristol Uni. He was chuffed with that. Such a lovely guy. I was so shocked when he tragically passed 2 months later. RIP Keith.
    Chris Sugden.

    December 16, 2020
  4. Thank you so much, Richard! I just kove your recommendations, which opens all kinds of doors into a real of mystiers which my scattered life would not otherwise experience. There a music club in Bristol in the early 90s, often at the Gloucs Cricket Ground, and I heard Keith play there many times. This piece is amazing, and the cathedral acoustics perfect.

    December 16, 2020
  5. George Burt #

    Thanks Richard, that’s another lovely post. I’ve been really enjoying “the Monk Watches the Eagle”, and your review is wonderful. We’re really lucky to have these two late masterpieces by Keith. Big thanks to Martin Archer and Discus music for getting the CDs out there. I believe the process for the “The Monk…” was particularly fraught. I did a couple of projects with Keith in the band I run with Raymond MacDonald, and he was almost always kind, thoughtful, very funny, and perceptive. I was always struck by his immense practicality in preparing music for performance. Not a minute of rehearsal time was wasted, an education for easy-going types like Raymond and me..! I remember him telling me about “The Monk Watches the Eagle”, of which he was quietly and justifiably proud. He told me that when rehearsals with the BBC Singers started he did what he usually did with a group of musicians new to him- he jotted down their names and made a point of chatting to the individuals to find out about their personalities, backgrounds and interests (I’ve seen Barry Guy do the same thing with ensembles). One of them told him that most composers just didn’t bother with that kind of thing… Thanks again! G

    December 16, 2020
  6. Graham Pogson #

    Excellent post. Keith was an awesome pianist, composer and arranger. There are two particular memories that I would like to share. First, attending the Wales launch in 2007 of “Live at Le Mans” double CD by the Keith Tippett Orchestra upstairs at a pub in Cardiff (although the band did not play that evening). Keith and Julie attended and listened intently throughout the playing of the CD, which is fabulous. Although it was a very hot evening, Keith retained the air of a country squire with his waistcoat, jacket and sideburns.
    Secondly, listening to Mujician, probably the finest British Free Jazz group ever, at The Four Bars Inn, Cardiff, at about the same time. Keith was a member of the group alongside Paul Dunmall,Tony Levin and Paul Rogers. They played two sets, each one consisting of continuous music lasting about 45 minutes. Although not the greatest fan of free jazz, I was certainly blown away that night. I had to purchase immediately their sixth album “There’s No Going Back Now” (2006) which, although I recommend, did not have the same impact on me as that gig.
    Keith’s duo recordings with Stan Tracey have already been mentioned. I would add his duo CD with Andy Shepard “66 Shades Of Lipstick” (1990), which is somewhat of a masterpiece.uu

    December 16, 2020
  7. Nick Shaw #

    I was saddened to hear that Keith Tippett had died in June. He was a vital link for me getting to know and enjoy jazz. In the early 70’s my musical taste had moved from Led Zeppelin via Pink Floyd to King Crimson and Soft Machine. Keith’s contribution to Cat Food the King Crimson single that led to the appearance on Top of the Pops was an important moment for me. I subsequently started to listen to a lot of British jazz musicians of the day, including his Centipede, and continue to appreciate the genre as part of a range of musical likes. I was inspired recently to watch the 625 programme on BBC4 to realise there are an amazing range of young British jazz musicians to enjoy. I still listen to his “Dedicated to You but you weren’t listening” album which I still feel is amazing.
    Many thanks for this post Richard – I was also reading your items in the Melody Maker at the time.

    December 17, 2020
  8. GuitarSlinger #

    Tippet is one of those enigmas in music begging the question …. why did he never receive the attention he so rich deserved . An enigma that can only be explained by the fact that the music business overall choses $$$$$$ over talent . With few who’s focus is talent occasionally slipping under the radar

    December 18, 2020
  9. #

    Many thanks for this lovely piece Richard. I have fond memories of the Berlin gig too.


    Martin Archer

    December 18, 2020
  10. Denis Dalby #

    My abiding memory of Kieth Tippett is from the late lamented Appleby Jazz Festival in the early 2000s when he played with Mujician in a marquee in the castle grounds, which was battered by a wonderful storm. Paul Dunmalll was soloing against the elements, the wind was threatening to demolish the Marquee, but Keith carried on carving out an accompaniment to the night while his ‘toys’ tinkled in the background. A special musician.

    December 18, 2020

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