Like many British improvisers of his generation, the pianist and composer Keith Tippett could be forgiven for adopting a mildly jaundiced view of the acceptance he is accorded in his own country, at least as measured in the frequency with which he is invited to play before an audience. But last night, as he opened a three-night residency at the Vortex in East London, there was no mistaking the warmth of the response for a well attended concert that satisfyingly expanded an appreciation of the artistic compass of a man whose past exploits have ranged from compelling solo recitals to those celebrated concerts back in 1971 with the mind-bogglingly variegated 50-piece band he called Centipede.
Last night’s gig began with Tippett accompanying his wife, Julie Tippetts, as she recited five of her poems — although “recited” is not quite the appropriate term, since Julie (nee Driscoll) frequently slipped from speech into improvised song. The bringing together of jazz and poetry is a notion with a history of few successes and many honourable failures; this attempt proved very effective, thanks to the engaging and unpretentious quality of Julie’s writing, the sheer musicality of her voice and the beautifully spare commentary from Keith’s piano. “We’ve never tried that before,” Keith said afterwards, “not even at home.”
The remainder of the evening featured the Elysian Quartet — Emma Smith and Jennymay Logan (violins), Vincent Sipprel (viola) and Laura Moody (cello) — by themselves in Tippett’s first string quartet, written for the group in 2008, and then with the composer in his piano quintet, commissioned by the Kreuzer Quartet almost 20 years ago. Astringent writing in the first and third movements of the quartet made room for thoughtful improvisation — imagine trying to get a string quartet to improvise when Tippett was starting out on his career, 40-odd years ago — counterbalanced by a brief second movement based on a lilting country-dance melody. The quintet was full of the dramatic contrasts that have always characterised his music, ranging from the pastoral through the romantic to the motorik, with a couple of floor-shaking passages in which the strings fought against the roiling bottom octave of the club’s Steinway.
Tonight’s instalment finds him leading a new trio (with the drummer Peter Fairclough and the bassist Tom McCredie) and giving the first performance of a suite for octet, The Nine Dances of Patrick O’Gonogon. On Saturday he and the Elysian Quartet will reconvene for an evening of spontaneous composition. If it continues the way it began last night, this short residency will be go down as a triumph for one of the great figures of contemporary British jazz.