The Rare Music Club, 1992-2018

By Chris Albury, with help from Richard Wiltshire

Rare: not occurring very often; unusually good or remarkable.

The Rare Music Club was founded by its artistic director Keith Tippett on a wing and a prayer in early 1992. As with so many of Keith’s projects this was born out of pure heart and musical passion with little thought to financial practicalities and none whatsoever for personal gain. At the time Bristol was well-served with live jazz in all its formats, but for fans of free improvisation the Bristol live music scene was lean. The infrequent low-key pop-up improv gigs were punctuated with grander affairs such as when Mujician, in collaboration with the Georgian Ensemble, brought the house down at St George’s in June 1991.

Driven by a desire to have the luxury of a music club residency for Mujician to play regularly, Keith broadened the concept, with an inspirational musical genre crossover vision, to include high quality contemporary classical and traditional folk music on the same bills. Keith’s idea was to take world-class music out of the concert hall into a more intimate setting with a bar, and to break down musical boundaries for musicians and listeners alike.

And so it was that on the evening of Friday 26 June 1992 the inaugural RMC event took place at the Malaap, an Indian bar and restaurant on the Cheltenham Road. (The venue was later to become Jesters Comedy Club, and then Tesco Metro which it remains today.) The spacious setting allowed for cabaret-style seating, compered and presided over by Keith, with Mr Sandhu (and his churring till) behind the bar, and Mrs Sandhu who ran the kitchen. Any fears that the Bristol crowd wouldn’t turn out that first night were allayed with a full house which witnessed the very special Alex Balanescu Quartet serving up Michael Nyman String Quartets, the Uillean piper Steafan Hannigan transporting us to a Celtic world, and the Mujician Trio, (in an unexpected pre-opening twist Paul Rogers, the quartet’s double bass player, had recently moved to France), sending us to another realm entirely, dazzling with their improvisational chops and synergy. By way of an encore Hannigan joined Keith, Paul Dunmall and Tony Levin for a special 30-minute reel of music-making delight.

After the initial euphoria hopes were high that this success would be repeated regularly as a roll-call of no lesser names took to the Malaap stage on the ensuing Fridays. Accompanying various permutations of the Mujician Trio and Julie Tippetts were, among others, Pauline Cato, Paul Rutherford, Andrew Ball, Melinda Maxwell, Maire ni Chathasaig, Ian Stuart, trugopera, Will Menter & Henry Shaftoe, Whippersnapper, Alan Tomlinson, the Tony Bevan Trio and the Howard Riley/Elton Dean Quartet. Alas, the momentum from the opening gala night was not maintained and, in spite of good media publicity and support including BBC radio broadcasts, an irreversible dip in audience numbers stretched the Club’s shoestring finances to the limit so that by the spring of 1993 Keith was forced to call time out.

Not to be beaten, and with an augmented committee to share the workload, Keith sought new sponsors and a new venue and with great fanfare the RMC began its second incarnation on Thursday nights at the altogether brighter and more comfortable Grace Room of the Gloucestershire County Cricket Club in spring 1994. While audience numbers fluctuated here too, the room was often full to witness yet more remarkable performances from Keith’s musical friends and allies across the musical divides. Acts included Polly Bolton, Andy Cutting & Chris Wood, Piers Adams & Julian Rhodes, Chas Dickie & Clive Bell, the Westbrook Trio, Toby Delius & Alex Maguire Quartet, the Western Sinfonia, formidable pianists Julian Jacobson, Andrew Ball and fresh-faced Thomas Ades, plus violinists Alex Balanescu & Claire Connors, Martin Carthy, the young Eliza Carthy & Nancy Kerr, Dave Swarbrick and Susanne Stanzeleit. Mary Wiegold and The Composers Ensemble made a welcome return, and the all too rare appearances of Julie Tippetts proved a star attraction when she was paired up with legendary guitarist Derek Bailey.

With funding received from the Musicians' Union, the Holst Foundation, South West Arts, plus door takings and LP sales the RMC operated successfully, even going on tour in spring 1995 under the management and guidance of Nod Knowles, thanks to funding from the Contemporary Music Network of the Arts Council of England. By then, a combination of factors, including the loss of the Grace Room venue and the Club’s committee members scattering geographically, forced the RMC into lockdown hibernation.

By the new millennium Keith was itching to get the RMC up and running again and thanks to a successful grant application to the Performing Right Society, and with added support from South West Arts, a new programme was initiated and proceedings kicked off with the spectacular Way Out West Festival weekend in February 2001, featuring 4 triple bills across four days. 

Fittingly, the Festival launched itself to an eager and attentive crowd at St George’s with the Bristol premiere and CD launch of Keith’s rollercoaster piano quintet Linuckea. This whirlwind classic, commissioned by the Kreutzer String Quartet following their RMC appearance in 1994, went down a storm, as did the Dufay Collective’s polished and stylish take on medieval music that followed. The evening ended with a trio improvisation masterclass from the Dartington Trio, comprising Keith, Julie and Paul Dunmall. 

Audience numbers dwindled for the remaining events at the Victoria Rooms and the Cube over the following 3 days, but for those with the musical stamina there was a succession of musical highlights including Simon Picard/John Edwards/Tony Marsh, Andrew Ball, Philip Sheppard, M. Blachandar and Nina Burmi. The weekend ended with a flourish with a triple bill of violinist Susanne Stanzeleit, a talk about composition for film by David Bedford and, finally, Julie and Maggie Nicols’ astonishing vocal improvisation to Pabst’s 1926 silent film Secrets of a Soul. Somewhat exhaustingly for all concerned a Linuckea/Mujician tour then immediately went on the road in true jazz style, criss-crossing the country as dictated to by club promoters’ sparse date availabilities.

The RMC was to continue sporadically with triple-bill events until the end of 2003 at the the Bristol Music Club, the Polish Club, the Wickham and QEH Theatres and, further afield, the Wiltshire Music Centre in Bradford on Avon and the Exeter Phoenix. Performers included Melinda Maxwell, Elena Riu, Alva, Lol Coxhill, Peter Fairclough, Satoko Fujii & Natsuki Tamura, Stephen Grew, Pat Thomas, Howard Riley, Miriam Keogh, Ayub Ogada, Cheng Yu, Nana Tsiboe, Moebius, David Le Page, Philip Sheppard, Oren Marshall, Katherine Spencer & Matt Sharp, Karen Street, Jon Lloyd, Hiroaki Takenouchi and Fazliddin Husanov. In spite of these stellar line-ups and good marketing the crowds were often small and without consistent long-term funding the RMC project was mothballed once more.

Right up until the end of his playing career Keith bore a torch for the RMC and its principles, convinced that music shouldn’t just be about making money and all one needed for musical magic to happen was an intimate room above a pub with a (baby) grand piano and a bar. The RMC was to have one final 2-night swan-song under Keith’s baton at the redoubtable Cafe OTO in London in January 2018. Looking back it might seem that a passing of the torch took place, for on the first night of this 2-night residency was the young Theo May Band performing alongside a trio with Keith, Julie and Theo, and on the second night there was a double bill of Keith and Julie’s always magical Couple in Spirit, followed by Keith’s multi-generational octet playing his The Nine Dances of Patrick O’Gonogon, the joyous, jazzy commission of lifelong Tippetts’ supporter Richard Wiltshire.

All in all, for those that just dipped in and out or for those that stayed the whole RMC course it was one hell of an ear-bending ride and, largely thanks to Andy Isham, there are some fantastic unofficial RMC gig recordings knocking around. Perhaps the Rare Music Club was ahead of its time or simply from out of time but one can’t help but think that if Keith were here for this musical celebration he would have been in his element as the big-hearted and genial host and catalyst for musical excellence and mischief. With so much cultural loss and damage caused by covid and the lockdowns it is time for us all to keenly embrace and celebrate the magic and healing of live music and the arts as a shared experience. Miss it and it’s gone.

As Keith, the self-proclaimed ‘poor man’s Ronnie Scott’, would say at the end of a gig when the crowd clapped and stomped for more: ‘That’s all we/they know’. Following more applause he would turn the tables on the audience and say: ‘Without people like you there aren’t people like us… good night and God bless.’ And so from us all, God bless you Keith, for without a person like you there would never have been an us.

The final words, however, should go to Keith himself, here recalling in his West Country burr an incident at the Malaap’s first season:

“Mrs Sandhu was the proprietor‘s wife, and she would cook these beautiful samosas and other Indian food. And she was cooking in the kitchen. And there was this clarinet player – Ian Stewart – doing a very contemporary piece with an actor. He is playing clarinet, and he ‘dies’ on stage: it’s a musical theatrical piece, and he collapses on stage. Of course, the audience knows he hasn’t had a heart attack, but Mrs Sandhu in the kitchen doesn’t. And you can hear a pin drop in the audience – it’s been quite a sustained piece – and she comes running through the swing doors, bang! – And she stands there really quiet, and points… And she says, “Oh my God: in my club somebody’s died!” And her son had to push her back into the kitchen – she was going hysterical. I shall never forget that – it was worth starting the Rare Music Club just for that night!”