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For a time during the 1970s, there were two "Keiths" who played prominent — though never overlapping — roles in the world of art rock and progressive rock music. For the majority of fans and casual FM listeners, there was Keith Emerson, the embodiment of flashy virtuosity, performer before audiences larger than the populations of some small cities, and recipient of tons of publicity from the rock press.
For those with more discriminating ears and taste, however, there was Keith Tippett, who played the piano on the records of King Crimson, Peter Sinfield, Elton Dean, and various offshoots from the Crimson/Soft Machine orbit. His own recordings during this period never found more than a tiny audience, but his playing on those others artists' records, especially the King Crimson albums, made him a familiar name to tens of thousands of listeners.
Tippett came from a very musical family, and showed a strong aptitude and interest in piano and organ as a child. He also played cornet and tenor horn with Bristol Youth Band. Even in his teens, Tippett's main interest lay outside the booming British beat sound, in jazz, both of the "trad" (i.e. Dixieland) variety and bop. He came to London in 1967 at age 20 and found it an unforgiving place for an aspiring jazz musician amid the boom in psychedelia, ska, bluebeat, and R&B. Unable to find any paying gigs, he survived with a job folding cardboard boxes and lived in a garret — deprived of access to a piano, he cut notches into the edge of a table to help him practice.
He did become known around the jazz clubs in London, where he crossed paths with other like-minded musicians, among them the members of Chris MacGregor's expatriate South African ensemble the Blue Notes, including drummer Louis Moholo, trumpet man Mongezi Feza, and saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, with whom he would collaborate in the future. A scholarship that he secured to the Barry Summer School Jazz Course in Wales introduced him to cornet and trumpet player Marc Charig, saxman Elton Dean, and trombonist Nick Evans.
Tippett formed his own sextet in late 1967 with Dean, Charig, and Evans, and a rhythm section that, at various times, featured bassists Jeff Clyne, Roy Babbington, Harry Miller, and Neville Whitehead, and drummers Phil Howard, John Marshall, Bryan Spring, and Alan Jackson. The band earned a residency at Oxford Street's 100 Club, which gave them a lot of visibility and got them a contract with the fledgling Vertigo label, which resulted in the release of two albums, You Are Here I Am There (1970) and Dedicated to You, But You Weren't Listening (1971).
Those albums remain obscurities, but Tippett and members of his group were much more visible in 1970 and 1971 in their role in the studio with Robert Fripp's King Crimson. Tippett alone was originally tapped by Fripp to play the piano in the studio band that he assembled in early and mid-'70s to complete In the Wake of Poseidon, after the original King Crimson band broke up. By that time, Tippett's group — which included Dean, Charig, Evans, Jeff Clyne (bass), and Alan Jackson (drums), with Giorgio Gomelsky sitting in on bells — had finished You Are Here I Am There.
Tippett, Charig, and Evans all played very prominent roles on King Crimson's Lizard (1970), and Fripp invited Tippett to join his band, but he declined, preferring to keep his own group. Even as a "guest" musician, Tippett was extremely prominent on Lizard, his acoustic piano standing in sharp contrast to the Mellotrons and other electronic instruments on their records — Fripp's Mellotron swelled in the background, replacing a string section, while Tippett's resonant chords and elegant note patterns, delighted audiences in the effect and the contrast. He and Charig turned up on Islands (1971), by which time the Tippett band had complete Dedicated to You, with Robert Wyatt, Bryan Spring, Phil Howard, and Gary Boyle.
That album concluded the band's contract with Vertigo, and Tippett jumped to British RCA the same year. His major project for 1971, apart from Crimson's Islands album and the second Vertigo album of his own, was the Centipede Orchestra. This 50-piece outfit, assembled late in 1970 and including Roy Babbington (bass), Ian Carr (trumpet), Elton Dean (saxophone, cello), Alan Skidmore (sax), Karl Jenkins (oboe), John Marshall (drums), vocalists Zoot Money (ex-Animals), Mike Patto, Julie Tippetts (the former Julie Driscoll), and Robert Wyatt (drums), was put together to perform Tippett's composition "Septober Energy," an extended large-scale work. After a few live performances, a recording was arranged with British RCA, produced by Robert Fripp — the resulting double-LP, Septober Energy, was issued in 1971.
Centipede was bought by listeners familiar with both King Crimson and the Soft Machine (several of whose members participated), but it came to be regarded as a gargantuan disaster, failing to attract either favorable reviews or sales of any significance (it was reissued in 1974 in America and England, and failed to sell again, despite a serious advertising campaign by RCA, at least in New York, where the company took out co-op newspaper advertising with Korvettes and Sam Goody's, based on Robert Fripp's presence as producer). Tippett stayed with RCA for one album, Blue Print, recorded in 1972 with a band made up of Babbington, drummer Frank Perry, and Julie Tippetts. An ex-member of Brian Auger's Trinity, her soaring soprano voice added vital new elements to the sound of Tippett's music. They also formed the core of Ovary Lodge, a group that also recorded an album (produced by Fripp) for RCA, and a second record for the Ogun label. During the mid-'70s, the Tippetts were also involved with Giorgio Gomelsky's short-lived progressive rock label Utopia, where they recorded the Sunset Glow album.
As a result of his decision to keep his work rooted in jazz, Tippett's career hardly slowed with the end of the art rock boom in the late '70s. He simply wasn't a part of it — with his emphasis on acoustic piano and jazz improvisation, he wasn't flashy enough to be embraced by the arena-sized audiences that Emerson, Lake & Palmer or Yes were pulling in, but he was a fine enough musician to impress the more thoughtful members of those audiences. Tippett's bands since the early '70s centered on pure improvisation, playing avant-garde jazz and free-form rock. Tippett and his wife also played with other groups, and he recorded duets (as T'nT) with pianist Stan Tracey, and composed another piece for large orchestra, "Frames: Music for an Imaginary Film" (1978), which was recorded by a 22-piece band that he organized, called Ark. He played in bands with Trevor Watts, Elton Dean, Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo, and Howard Riley. His album appearances, in addition to those on his wife's and King Crimson's discs, include records by Elton Dean, Arthur Brown, Dennis Gonzalez, Dudu Pukwana, and Hugh Hopper.
During the late '80s, Tippett formed a new band of his own called Mujician, featuring Paul Dunmall on reeds, Paul Rogers on double bass, and Tony Levin on drums, which specialized in pure improvisation. The Tippetts also recorded as part of a trio with Willi Kellers, and Keith has written film and television scores, as well as pieces for contemporary concerts of serious music, including works for string quartet and piano. When he wasn't performing, Tippett was also a teacher, most notably at the Darlington International Summer School. The Tippetts continued to record and tour England and the European continent with various bands and orchestras, and in the late '80s, their work began appearing on the EG label.
Continuing the restless streak that has been his benchmark; Tippett nonetheless shifted labels as much as he did recording partners throughout the '90s and into the 21st century. Notable albums and collaborations included 66 Shades of Lipstick with Andy Sheppard on EG, and Mujician III (August Air) on FMP in 1990; the Bern Concert duet album with regular collaborator, pianist Howard Riley in 1994; the solo concert Une Croix Dans L'océan on Victo in 1995; Bladik on Cuneiform with Elton Dean, Tony Levin, Paul Dunmall, Paul Rogers, and Roswell Rudd in 1997; Linückea, backed by strings in 2000 on FMR; The Dartington Trio with his wife and Dunmall in 2003, and the Dartington Improvising Trio: Live at the Priory in 2005, also on FMR; and the limited-edition Mahogany Rain on DUNS in 2007, with Dunmall, Tippetts, and Philip Gibbs. In 2008, Tippett played one of the two pianos, as well as conducted the 20-piece big band called Canto Generale, on the stellar live effort Viva la Black Live at Ruvo, recorded in Italy. That same year he also also oversaw the remaster and release of Supernova, a first-time issue by Resteamed of the tapes from his 1977 duet jam session with Stan Tracey. In 2010, Tippett formed a new octet with collaborators old and new, including his wife, Dunmall, James Gardiner-Bateman, Peter Fairclough, Kevin Figes, Thad Kelly, and Ben Waghorn. the band recorded his album-length suite From Granite to Wind early in 2011; it was released in the fall by Ogun.