Rigorously nourishing

This album was a gift from a friend, who I imagine had it recommended to him for its prog connections, but found it a bit too spicy when it arrived. I had it hanging around for several years before I gave it a really deep listening, but now I have… wow. Centipede were a fairly short lived jazz/progressive rock orchestra led by the great, inscrutable British jazz pianist, Keith Tippett. Septober Energy, their only album, was released in 1971, and although they were a performing ensemble, I can’t imagine they worked that much, given that there were around fifty members, and the music is not always that accommodating to public taste in jazz or rock. And what members! Robert Fripp, Robert Wyatt, Ian Carr, Elton Dean, Alan Skidmore, Dudu Pukwana, Boz Burrell, Zoot Money… I’ll leave it at name-checking the famous ones, but the significant observation is that they cut right across the worlds of jazz and progressive rock.

This was the aim of the project, I guess, to create orchestral music that’s disinterested with regard to style or performance practice, that exploits the expressive affordances of every available approach to the making of coherent noise (although much of what’s been written subsequently about this music finds coherence to be lacking!) That kind of aim can easily produce a kind of cheesy mist of untethered decorative features, but Tippett was nothing if not rigorous, and he dug deep into all of his stylistic sources. Fripp was a part of the performing ensemble, but he didn’t play his guitar on this record, concentrating on his duties as producer instead—and clearly that was a mountain of work in itself, with so many musicians and such a complex suite of music. However, his presence is a token of the project’s commitment to rock as an aesthetic and procedural touchstone, rather than an easily plundered source of recyclable stylistic tropes. There are extended sections of rock riffing, led by Brian Godding’s guitar and one or more of the six contributing bassists. Despite Godding’s credentials as a fusioneer, I have to agree with some latter-day assessments which find his soloing a bit unadventurous, but in terms of bringing the rock to an avant-garde jazz orchestra, he nails it.

The later reception of this record seems to struggle with the breadth of Tippett’s vocabulary, particularly his inclusion of extended sections of free improvisation, which prog-fans especially seem to find aimless or disorganised, but for me that’s one of its great strengths. The album presents a single suite of music in four movements, which is rigorously creative and restlessly exploratory from start to finish. It’s an incantatory record, whose most striking moods and meanings relate to the great community of instrumental voices it gathers, their capacity to move as one without submerging their individual characters in the ensemble texture. It bears some resemblance, in that respect, to the collective improvisation of early jazz, which has been revisited repeatedly by proponents of avant-garde and free playing for precisely that reason. In a sense, with its earthy grooves and spiralling top lines, Septober Energy is the sort of thing you’d expect from Charles Mingus, if he’d grown up listening to rock. Although there are moments when the sound is inwardly focussed, and not that welcoming, at its best the ensemble shouts a great ritual chant that invites the world to sing together (and the vocal performances, ranging from the soulful to the experimental, are extraordinary). I’d go so far as to call this a political record, for the model it offers of a community in total togetherness, which refuses to restrain the individual proclivities of any of its members.

I’m not entirely surprised that it’s little known today, given both its avant-garde tendencies, and the fact that British modern jazz of this era has required rediscovery and revival on a regular basis since the 1990s. However, I think the record may be more influential than is broadly appreciated. In ‘Part 2’ I found the hypnotic riff from Talking Heads’ ‘The Great Curve’ (on Remain in Light, my favourite Talking Heads album)—whether David Byrne consciously lifted it, or whether he absorbed it osmotically from an isolated chance listening, I can only guess, and it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it’s a connection which makes perfect sense to me, as although Byrne is not associated with the world of jazz, his almost contrarian commitment to creative rigour mirrors Tippett’s, and despite his usually ironic, distanced public persona, he often produces music which is earthy and communitarian in character. I feel that there’s a secret history to be uncovered here, although I’ll leave that to those with the patience for proper research! The months I’ve spent with this record have continued to unveil new details and experiences, with every single listening. There is so much great musicianship, committed performance, and intellectually demanding composition, in such a closely knit yet expansive ensemble, that I doubt I’ll ever exhaust it. I don’t think I’m expressing a majority opinion here, even among those that are well-disposed towards the avant-garde in jazz, but I found Septober Energy to be a wonderful, entertaining, and fundamentally nourishing record.

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