Keith Tppett - Biography 

Pianist   Composer  Bandleader   Innovator

Keith Tippett left Bristol in 1967 and came to prominence in London in the late 1960s with his Sextet and his astonishing 50-piece ensemble Centipede. He is widely recognised as one of the most distinctive and radical pioneers in contemporary jazz today.

From solo performances through a myriad of duos, trios, quartets, sextets and septets to the 21-piece orchestra The Ark and the never-to-be-forgotten Centipede, he has shown a discipline, dedication and creative energy unparalleled in contemporary music in Britain.

Performance, composition, recordings, broadcasts, masterclasses, film scores, workshops and children’s education projects – all of these elements constitute Keith Tippett’s work over the past three decades.


Critics have continued to document Tippett’s work throughout his career. From the 1971 comment by Melody Maker about Centipede: "In this one piece he has done more than almost anybody else that comes to mind in breaking down barriers in rock, jazz and classical music", to the recent comment in the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD that: "it may turn out to be that the three Mujician (solo) albums made for FMP in the ’80s will be regarded as among the most self-consistent and beautiful piano improvisations of the decade and a significant re-programming of the language of piano", the scope of his musical genius has been a constant subject of critical appreciation.Tippett’s associations have been with some of the most substantial names in contemporary jazz. Over the years he has made numerous recordings and concert and festival appearances alongside other major pioneering improvisers from Europe and South Africa.

Image Courtesy Riccardo Bergerone

In recent years his work has gained increasing recognition in wider geographical and stylistic contexts. Always in demand in Western Europe, since the late 1980s he has travelled further afield to perform, for example, in Japan, Canada, USA, India (on a British Council solo tour), Latvia and Hungary. In 1991, with the other members of the highly successful improvising group Mujician (joined for the project by vocalist Julie Tippetts), he visited Tbilisi, Georgia (still then part of the old Soviet Union), to introduce twelve Georgian musicians to the new world of contemporary jazz. After two weeks study and rehearsals the new band – Mujician and the Georgian Ensemble – played gala concerts to rapturous acclaim in Tbilisi, travelling to Britain to perform and broadcast as the undoubted highlight of the 1991 Bath International Music Festival.

Work with other larger groups regularly features in Keith Tippett’s schedule. As group member and one of the arrangers for the British-based Dedication Orchestra he has recorded and played several European festivals and celebratory concerts. In May 1995 he was invited to lead Berlin’s Jazz Workshop Orchestra rehearsing and performing his own compositions (subsequently broadcast on German radio).

Recognition has come, too, from the world of contemporary ‘classical’ music. Not only has Tippett played a crucial role in opening the Dartington International Summer School to jazz and improvisation but he has composed several pieces for new music groups such as the Composers Ensemble with Mary Wiegold and recorded with the Balanescu String Quartet. His ground-breaking introduction, as founder, musician and artistic director of the Rare Music Club series of concerts in his native Bristol (in which jazz, contemporary ‘classical’ and roots/ethnic music performers share the same bill) has given further emphasis to his position as a leading figure in the contemporary music movement in Great Britain.

Associations with Tippett through Dartington and the Rare Music Club led the Kreutzer String Quartet to commission him to write new music for piano quintet, which he premiered with the Kreutzer String Quartet in Nottingham in October 1995 and subsequently recorded for BBC Radio 3 at the 1996 Bath International Music Festival.

A steadily developing interest in music for film was presaged in 1978 when The Ark recorded the album Frames – Music for an Imaginary Film. In the 1980s Keith Tippett collaborated as soloist and improviser with filmmakers and dancers in TSW’s experimental Body on Three Floors and composed for the Comic Strip’s comedy feature Supergrass. In 1991 he was invited to compose for the controversial TV piece The Holy Family Album, written and narrated by the late Angela Carter; and the same year saw a collaboration with violinist/composer Alex Balanescu on music for Cowboys, a series of five animation shorts. As part of the 1995 Meltdown Festival at the South Bank he appeared at London’s National Film Theatre, improvising as a soloist to four masterly short silent films by the Polish director Starewicz – a felicitous combination of early twentieth-century animation and late twentieth-century improvisation.

In April 1996 Tippett and the members of Mujician toured the Republic of South Africa, undertaking workshops and performing both as a quartet and in collaboration under Tippett’s direction with the South African group Ingoma. The success of this tour prompted the Arts Council of England to engage Mujician and Ingoma for a Contemporary Music Network educational and performance tour in October 1997. 

Earlier in 1997 Tippett performed his Piano Quintet Linuckea at the Banlieues Bleues Festival in Paris. In May he led his newly-formed 21-piece orchestra Tapestry in performances of his new composition First Weaving specially commissioned by BBC Radio 3 – his first full-scale big band project for almost a decade. Shortly afterwards he completed his first solo tour of Japan, recording a new solo double CD in live performance and went on to work on a commissioned piece for (and performances with) the Gogmagogs music theatre company.

Projects in 1998 included a commission for Kokoro, the new music group formed out of the Bournemouth Sinfonietta. The piece And after all it was, was dedicated to his late mother Kitty Tippetts, had five performances in the UK and culminated with Tippett being artist in residence at the Turner Sims Concert Hall. His world premiere of Margherita’s Miniatura was performed by The Southern Italian harpsichord player Margherita Porfido at the Europa Jazz Festival Du Mans, where Tippett was honoured guest performing with Mujician and leading his orchestra Tapestry in a performance of the BBC commission First Weaving. Other highlights of 1998 included a solo performance together with a Mujician quartet performance at the Grenoble Jazz Festival; the release on CD of Friday the 13th (solo), Colours Fulfilled (Mujician) and Zen Fish (Dreamtime). Of Friday the 13th Steve Day of Avant Magazine writes "Keith Tippett … without a lot of fuss and major label histrionics, is gradually being recognised as one of the most individual musicians this country has produced."

As 1999 got underway, the CD recording of the Kreutzer piano quintet commission Linuckea went into the planning stage. There were appearances at festivals in Canada (with Mujician), solo performances in Japan, North America and Italy, the Tapestry orchestra in Italy and France, trios and duos with his wife Julie in Spain and East Germany, and a commission by the concert pianist Julian Jacobson took him towards the millennium. 

Early 2000 saw Keith bring in the new management team of Mind Your Own Music, a change necessitated by previous manager Nod Knowles’s departure to take up a post with the Scottish Arts Council. In the spring, Keith and his wife and vocalist Julie Tippetts were invited to perform at two large festivals in Russia, with the touring supported by the British Council. The duo, Couple in Spirit, followed this with a five-date UK tour that included The Cowane in Stirling, Scotland. Linuckea was finally released on CD by FMR (UK) and plans to put together a CD launch tour were put in place.

This tour was given funding by the National Lottery Programme (Arts Council) and went on a six-date UK tour in a double bill with Mujician. Finally, Linuckeahad a chance to attract the attention it deserved and was the inspiration for several notable reviews: “Linuckea stands out as an important point in the music’s history for what Tippett is creating here is surely a ‘future chamber music’ and something that cries out to be performed, live, created in the moment” (Jazzwise); "This is contemporary music at its broadest, richest, inclusive best. Labels are even more irrelevant than usual” (Jazz Review); “This really is a fully integrated quintet rather than piano plus quartet, five players conceived as a single organism. Composed music it may be, but it’s fundamentally continuous with Tippett’s years of spontaneous interaction with diverse highly accomplished yet idiosyncratic musicians … Linuckea is unequivocally another landmark work from the mujician” (The Wire). At the end of this tour Mujician recorded their fifth CD for Cuneiform Records due for release in summer 2001. 

Another significant event in February 2001 was the relaunch of Keith Tippett’s Rare Music Club in Bristol with a four-event festival, ‘The Way Out West Weekend’. All events were multi-genre triple bills and included a talk and improvisation to a rarely seen silent film by Pabst. Using three venues and a diverse range of top musicians including the Dufay Collective, Paul Dunmall, Keith and Julie Tippett, Nina Burmi and Group, Balu Raghuraman, Susanne Stanzeleit, Andrew Ball, David Bedford, Maggie Nichols and John Edwards, the whole festival was made possible through the financial support of the Performing Right Society Foundation. The opening night at St George’s Bristol was recorded and broadcast by Somethin’ Else for BBC Radio 3’s programme Jazz on 3. One more RMC event took place in July (with three solo performers: Alex Balanescu, Lol Coxhill and Ayub Ogada), and another in November, with a new series of events planned for the coming year.

At this same time Keith began to work in a series of workshops and seminars (improvisation, big band and film composition) at the University of Bristol Music Department. In April Linuckea featured at the closing night of the Europa Jazz Festival du Mans and was an undoubted festival highlight with both audience and other European festival promoters alike. In May Keith performed solo at the Bute Theatre in Cardiff and appeared with Mujician at Bath Contemporary Jazz Weekend. June saw his Piano Quintet appearing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London at the invitation of Robert Wyatt’s Meltdown Festival. His duo project with Julie, Couple in Spirit, played at Coventry Jazz, Saalfelden and St Donat's Arts Centre the same year. In October Peter Fairclough's duo project with Keith, Wild Silk, took to the road for a series of successful dates around the UK.

2002 has seen Keith performing in duo with Julie Tippetts at the Stampod Festival in Leiden, Venice, Rome and the Skopje Jazz Festival. He has also recently performed in duo with Alex Balanescu and toured the UK extensively with percussionist Peter Fairclough. Perhaps the highlight of 2002 was Keith Tippett's Orchestra Tapestry performing at major international festivals in Lisbon, Portugal and Victoriaville, Canada. Keith was a visiting tutor at Aldeburgh Summer School, organised by Joanna MacGregor, and was also recently commissioned by the Dartington International Summer School to write a fifteen-minute piece for the percussion quartet Ensemble Bash entitled The Dance of the Dragonfly. This was premiered in August 2002. In November he was a guest participant in improvisation techniques with musicians playing Scottish Traditional Music and performed and worked with the jazz collective L'Arfi in the South of France. 

In early 2003 Mujician performed at the Banlieues Bleues Festival in Paris. Returning to England Tippett toured the United Kingdom with the Dedication Orchestra. In April he was invited by the Finnish U.M.O. Jazz Orchestra to rehearse and perform his music in Helsinki, culminating in a two-hour radio broadcast. During the summer of this year Tippett performed Linuckea in southern Italy, toured Austria, Croatia and Portugal with Mujician. Taught at the D.I.S.S. and toured with three pianists, Stephen Grew, Pat Thomas and Howard Riley in the UK. The latter part of the year was involved in planning for two commissions: A forty-minute piece for the BBC Singers, eight saxophones and improvising voice; and a fifteen-minute piece for the Apollo Saxophone Quartet. CDs released that year were Imago with Peter Fairclough, Mpumi with Louis Moholo, and Another Part of the Story with Howard Riley and John Tilbury.

The winter of 2003/2004 was dedicated to the completion of the commissions received in 2003. On 7th May Mujician performed at the Europa Jazz Festival, that same night the Apollo Saxophone Quartet gave the world premiere of his Five Short Pieces + Four Whispers for Archies's Chair at the Brighton Festival. After returning to England Tippett immediately went into rehearsals with the BBC Singers. On 14th May the world premiere of The Monk Watches the Eagle, commissioned by the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, with the BBC Singers, the ASQ, Julie Tippetts (improvising voice and text), Paul Dunmall (soprano sax), Ben Waghorn (tenor sax), Kevin Figes (alto sax) and Chris Biscoe (baritone sax) performed at Norwich Cathedral. This cantata was recorded for BBC Radio 3. The Dartington Improvising Trio also performed at this Festival. That summer saw Tippett working in solo performances and various ensembles. At Dartington in July he performed Linuckea with the Elysian Quartet. Late August saw him performing with the Italian orchestra Canto General at the Talos Festival in Ruvo di Puglia. Apart from appearances which he had committed himself to, the autumn of that year was focused on a commission for the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra subsequently performed in 2005 in Edinburgh.

In February 2005 his composition You Never Know for the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra was performed in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Tippett was also one of a number of leading musicians who contributed to the three-part programme Jazz Britannia screened on BBC4 and BBC2. He continued working with the George Burt/Raymond MacDonald Quintet and subsequently recorded two CDs with them. He conducted the RWCMD Jazz Ensemble at the Brecon Jazz Festival and performed with Mujician in Rome and Pisa.

2006/2007 Tippett performed with the Dartington Improvising Trio in France, a duet with Couple in Spirit in Russia and saw the release at last of his composition First Weaving for the Tapestry Orchestra. In September 2007 Julie and Keith recorded with Nostalgia 77 a CD which will be released in 2009. In November Mujician broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and highlight of 2007 was the world premiere of From Granite to Wind commissioned by Mr and Mrs Colin & Dorothy Hopkins. The premiere was at the Colston Hall, Bristol, England.

In 2008 a reunion with Stan Tracey at the Barbican, London, (a concert to celebrate Stan's 81st birthday), was a resounding success. An old recording from 1978 was simultaneously released. A commission from the South West Music School (director Lisa Tregale) resulted in a piece for four drum kits and voice, text by Julie Tippetts, called Fish Tale. This was premiered in the Great Hall at Dartington and subsequently performed with dancers at Sadlers Wells. Together with Julie he held workshops in Paris with school children and jazz musicians culminating in a wonderful performance at the Banlieues Bleues Festival. Also that year Tippett performed with and conducted the Minafric Viva La Black Orchestra at festivals in Europe. This was followed by a trio performance with Julie and Willi Kellers at the FMP Festival in Berlin.

Back in England a duo performance with Julie at the Wiltshire Music Centre followed by a weekend workshop with the SWMS. The year was brought to a close with a concert at the Purcell Rooms, South Bank, London (London Jazz Festival) where he performed Linuckea with the Elysian Quartet, a duo with Stan Tracey and a duo with Julie. The first half of this concert was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in November; the second half of the concert with Julie Tippetts was broadcast in early 2009. He finally completed his string quartet commission for the Elysian Quartet.

In 2009 the Elysian Quartet performed his string quartet many times throughout the UK. Other highlights were many duets with Julie Tippetts, Stan Tracey, and Louis Moholo. Performances in Slovenia and Italy with Pino Minafra's 'Viva La Black' and working with the Kitchen Orchestra in Stavanger, Norway, solo performances in England, Germany and Italy contributed to a busy year.

In 2010 Tippett finished the George Burt/Raymond MacDonald commission entitled 'Absolutely Specifically For You'. A retrospective of his work and recordings over the last forty years was broadcast on Jazz Library BBC Radio 3. Other highlights - appearing with the Stefano Maltese Quartet, the George Burt/Raymond MacDonald Quintet, the Tippett/Kellers/Tippetts Trio, duets with Louis Moholo, the Pino Minafric Viva La Black Orchestra and a tour of the UK with Mujician. Sadly it was to be their last, as the great Tony Levin passed away a few months later. The commission from Lisa Tregale (SWMS) for chamber orchestra (Tap Dancing on the High Wire) had its world premiere at the Great Hall in Dartington.

2011: The recording of 'From Granite to Wind' commissioned by Colin and Dorothy Hopkins was completed at the end of January. It was released in June. Tippett also recorded with Theo May (a thirteen-year-old violinist) and Julie Tippetts duly released on SWMS label in May. He decided to stop teaching after eighteen years at the RWMCD. Draconian cut-backs being one reason for losing confidence in the jazz course.


Performing highlights include duets with Louis Moholo, Julie Tippetts and solo performances in Germany and Italy. A performance with Paul Dunmall, Paul Rogers, Miles Levin and Mark Sanders at Tony Levin's Memorial Concert was a particularly poignant evening. After twenty-seven years Julie and Keith ceased teaching at the D.I.S.S. 

In solo performance Keith Tippett’s hallmark is a unique, mesmeric style coupled with a melodic, spiritual power, which transforms the piano into an orchestra of his imagination. As an improviser he bears out the revelation, shared only by a handful of other musicians today, that spontaneous composition, with its fine balance of structure and inspiration, is once again a vital force in contemporary music. Tippett's attack was dizzyingly virtuosic but Tippett's monumental and unique spontaneous compositions are, in truth, a wholly engaging and enthralling experience - Decode Magazine

Power, beauty and musicianship - Chris Searle, Morning Star


Keith Tippett is an Honorary Fellow of the Dartington College of Arts and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

To be continued.