As a vocalist, Julie Tippett is literally without peer and cannot be compared to anyone. She is a true original. Perhaps this is because of her background, which began in the '60s with Brian Auger, when she was singing soul and R&B. Entering the progressive rock world of the 1970s with compatriots like saxophonist Elton Dean (and, of course, pianist Keith Tippett), her concerns, approach to singing, and methodology as a vocalist began her process of mutation into the artist she is today. It is perhaps because of her earlier training that Tippett is able to travel so far afield in her explorations. She understands and can execute the minutiae in each element of music she incorporates into her oeuvre. Drummer Willi Kellers is largely unknown in the States, yet is an in-demand session player for many Euro jazzers and improvisers. He has been playing with Julie Tippett and Keith Tippett steadily since the 1980s. Keith Tippett, of course, is a now legendary jazz pianist who embraced free and improvisational music in the late '60s, and has stubbornly forged his own path through the morass of jazz culture since then. Twilight Etchings was recorded during the October 1993 Total Music Meeting at the Podewil in Berlin. The set is comprised of five selections, the shortest of which (over ten minutes in length) is a stunner. While Tippett and Kellers are no doubt master musicians -- perhaps even greater than they appear by being able to support a vocalist like this in total improvisation -- it is Julie Tippett who confounds, shocks, bewilders, and ultimately inspires the listener here. Her music -- and this is clearly her music -- comes out of the desire to speak, to enter language, and to communicate from the deepest recesses of the human spirit. And enter language it does, with every device at her command. In fact, singing of this type -- it is the purest kind of singing -- is nothing less than a shamanistic exercise: journeying for the sake of discovery. This would also explain the titles of the tracks included here, mediations on nature and mysticism and their interrelation: "Pebbled Rain," "Song of the Desert Cactus," "The Masked Procession," "The Curious Coyote," "Dance of the Salamanders." This is not to say that Keith Tippett and Willi Kellers aren't essential to the exercise; they are. On "Song of the Desert Cactus," Tippett's piano solo spaces out chords over a ten-finger reach, pronouncing the sevenths and thirds over a minor-key backdrop, as Kellers double times him on the tops of his cymbals, walking to Tippett's deliberate crawl. Julie Tippett eventually re-enters first with a whistle, then a breathy whisper, and finally a moan so deep and long it seems to come from inside time itself. Rhythms from the entire trio alternate, doubling, tripling, and slowing each other, stacking up like chants led by Julie Tippett until the track finally soars off weightless and free.
On the finale, "Dance of the Salamanders," whistles and bird sounds coax Kellers into the mix. A Native American chanted prayer seduces Keith Tippett to lay a constant flutter of bass notes underneath as Kellers taps, spits, and wipes his drum skins. The sound of strings break into Tippetts' voice, as if to empathize, to call her voice forth from its own journey, and to have it enter into the rising tumult of the instruments. And as it does, the "dance" begins. Crossrhythms furiously create a whirling, shifting surface from which Julie Tippett swoops, slips, soars, and swings with her voice. She is the creature and its observer, the dirt floor and the sun, the elements and the thing itself all molded together as one. Here the instrumentalists do their best to keep up with her but it's a struggle; the ideas come to her so fast and furiously she can barely contain them herself. There is a silence in the middle, from which the instrumentalists find their place in the music, but all too quickly they lose themselves again in Julie Tippett' voice flying so high above them they can barely catch her shadow as it passes. She finally senses this and comes down, way down, into a mournful slow dance, a funereal dance of passage and transformation, before departing the stand altogether. The ensuing silence leaves the listener exhausted and dislocated, unsure for a few minutes of what has happened or what to do next. And that silence becomes deafening. It is for this reason that, of all of Julie and Keith Tippett's recordings, Twilight Etchings may indeed be the finest. Few recordings of improvised music, particularly vocal music, are as moving or as honestly original as this one.