Words by Vanessa Pettendorfer
Would recommend if you’re a fan of: Alice Coltrane, Robert Wyatt, Sandy Denny, Curved Air, Pentangle, Room, Tim Buckley
Through the cover’s lens you look upon a scene which represents one dimension of earth and time, the cloudy sky and it’s reflection in the ocean at dusk. It must be a peacefully tranquil atmosphere there, wide apart from industrialist society and metaphysical time. Only birds flying high at the horizon accompany the sublime colours nature has in its repertoire, when the sun sets. It is an excellent cover to tune you in to the musical sounds you’ll lend your ear. Carefree floating and drifting beyond gravity is the overall feel. Sunset glow radiates with infinite ethereal qualities. Don’t be afraid, Julie Tippetts’ second solo album, which was recorded and released in 1975, is an exceptional masterpiece dressed up with a delightful psychedelic touch! Dive into this twilight zone of universal consciousness, unusual sounds, bewitching voices, shamanic chants and repetitive rhythms!
Having redefined and re-positioned herself in the music cosmos in the wake of the 1970’s, Julie Tippetts (earlier known as Julie Driscoll) is now on an intermediate stage with respect to her solo work. Compared to 1969 (1971), which is in a way still conventional, Sunset Glow drifts a step further into this kind of total experimental freedom in vocal improvisation, she would later display on the a-capella album Voice (1977) together with Maggie Nicols, Brian Eley and Phil Minton, on her duo album with Maggie Nicols again, Sweet and S’ours (1982), and on her third solo work, Shadow Puppeteer (1999), which can be called a musically framed poetic narrative.
In Sunset Glow, even if the lyrics aren’t that complicated, their simplicity melts with the music perfectly. Emphasis is on the experience of the soundscapes’ meandering through the record’s space. In that those words generate a specific feeling in tandem with the organically composed structure and improvised sounds, they are poetic as well, indeed.
Moreover, since the early 1970’s, Julie has been productive in various ways, while supporting the prog jazz-rock band B.B.Blunder on vocals on their single album Workers’ Playtime (1971), she was involved with several influential projects in the free improvisation/free jazz genre like the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (1971), her husband’s ensembles ranging from small combos to big orchestras, as well as on lead vocals on Carla Bley’s, Tropic Appetites (1974). While conjuring up a consistent discography of the records she was part of at this period would take too long here, a selection of Birds of A Feather (1972), Septober Energy (1971), Blueprint (1972), Ovary Lodge (1976) and Warm Spirits – Cool Spirits (1977) sufficiently documents her matured vocal technique including unusual phrasing upon a purely instrumental and onomatopoetic use of the voice, influenced by African, Asiatic and Celtic musical practices. With Sunset Glow you get the whole package from conventional vocals to freely improvising in dialogue with the surrounding instruments’ sounds over an inexhaustible range. This along with the thrilling combination of acoustic instruments, electric guitar and the cautious handling of the drums in addition to technical studio possibilities like multi-tracking and reverb, is the particularity of this unique jewel, which was a long time hard to get.
Sunset Glow mainly features the core line-up of her debut solo album, 1969 (1971): Julie on vocals, piano, acoustic guitar, clay drum, tambourine, Keith Tippett on piano and harmonium, Brian Godding on electric guitar, Mark Charig on cornet and tenor horn, Elton Dean on alto saxophone, Nick Evans on trombone, Brian Belshaw on bass, but also Harry Miller on bass and South African drum legend Louis Moholo on drums. The album was produced by George Chkiantz in company with Julie and her former long-time producer, Georgio Gomelsky. Chkiantz did also the engineering. Designed and photographed by Dick Whitbread, the sleeve covers represent Julie’s paintings, of which the delicate one on the back abstractively imitates the composure of Japanese/Asiatic drawings. Let’s say, the cover covers the musical treasure brilliantly.
The album starts off with a cosy number. Arranged by Keith Tippett, “Mind of a Child” features Julie on vocals and piano, Keith on harmonium, Brian Godding on electric guitar and the renowned horn section. The omission of the drums is well decided, because it provides a fleeting-like experience for the listener. Instead, the warmth of the harmonium lays the ground and chiming horn parts, that drip in rhythmically like bells, festively underline the atmosphere, which is generated by the vocals’ tenderness. The following two tracks, “Oceans and Sky (and Questions Why?)” and “Sunset Glow” literally evoke the front cover’s image. While the first more driving piece features an extended line-up with the horns and complete rhythm section and guitars (acoustic and electric), the second one is reduced to Julie on vocals and piano, Mark Charig on cornet and tenor horn, as well as Harry Miller on bass. “Oceans and Sky (and Questions Why?)” combines elements of prog jazzrock and free improvisation. The blurring sounds of the electric guitar along with the horn section’s precise lines build up the frame. In between, the piano signifies upon Julie’s magnificient vocals. From the middle part on right to the ending, she uses her voice like an instrument and exploits her range to the highest, while the rhythm section creates a bottomless ground. The drums rather remain in the background, only the cymbals are dominant, so that everything glides along the soundscapes. eclectic cacophony, but in an ordered way, I would call it.
The record’s longest tune, title-track “Sunset Glow”, opens tranquilly and rests in this mood. Slowly driven by a repetitive piano pattern and rocked by multilayered voices on the off beats, the listener drifts on an epic ode to nature, as a line goes:
“Fire sky, breathtaking in your splendour, I surrender to your overwhelming beauty, unexpected after such a rain-filled day, your blackened clouds deceived my judgement, no – my judgement failed your way.”
The lyrical marveling at this natural event – rain and sunset glow afterwards – is accompanied by the soft but dense cornet sound and its charming melodic lines. In all, both songs handle with the universality of nature and the limits of human mind. Shouldn’t we all just experience nature phenomenologically on it’s own terms instead of trying to control it by rationalising it? The next track, “Now If You Remember”, was written by the then 7-year-old Jessica Constable, who nowadays is active in the avant-garde genre herself. Unfortunately, this piece is as short as an interlude would be. Brian Godding’s dreamy electric guitar accompanies Julie on multilayered vocals and acoustic guitar so gently, that you want to dwell on. Nevertheless, by listening to the ending words “So just lie, and close your eyes, and listen to a lullaby”, it seems that the concluding song of the album’s first part should prepare you for the following track on the B-side.
In fact, “Lilies” could be called a lullaby – a strange one, where you have the impression, that the flowers are speaking to you. Here, Julie is thoroughly solo. Voices, piano, acoustic guitars and clay drum she did all by herself. It’s so genious how the song opens and is structured. Shortly after the piano intro, hypnotizing shaman-like chant by overdubbed voices along with a repetitive acoustic guitar pattern generate the background. When the leading vocals set in – backed by an overdubbed choir as well, you are first irritated, but then miles away. Those chords seem that exotic and bewitching, as if you connect with a medium while attending a very intimate seance! Suspended chords interchange with resolved ones, the tension of dissonance and resolution guides your spiritual movement in a somnambulistic manner, which is then underlined by a clay drum. This is the album’s strongest song. Mysteriously magical and esoteric, it oscillates between fairy tale and shamanic ritual. The following tune, “Shifting Still”, is a purely instrumental piece with Julie on acoustic guitar and Keith on piano, where they perfectly cling to each other with a driving acoustic guitar framing the piano sounds. The tune develops in the middle part with Keith’s typical hammering piano patterns sounding like furiously dancing droplets, undermined by the guitar’s suspended chords. Like an outro, it simply extends the mood you were directed to by the previous song. All in one, the three pieces would fit beautifully together as a complicated composition with introduction, main part and ending. A short one again, “What Is Living” sounds more like a popular song, but is well done with the preeminent lead vocals supported by multi-tracked voices constantly replaying the main question,”what is living?”,around your head. Only the irritating hand claps should have better been cancelled. Nonetheless,it is a life-affirming song. Take its words as a mantra:
“What is living – if you can’t live to love? What is loving – if you can’t love to give? What is giving – if you can’t give everything? What is everything – if it’s not living? Live it to show it, give it to grow it, believe it to know it”
The concluding song is strong in tenderness and a very personal thing. With “Behind the Eyes (For a Friend, R)”, you can assume, that it is dedicated to Robert Wyatt, who had a tragic accident resulting in paralysation from the waist down shortly before the album’s recording. In fact, the Tippetts’ and Wyatt know each other well. Julie sang at Wyatt’s live concert at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London in 1974 (where she had already done a solo version of “Mind of a Child”), and Keith and his horn section were short-time part of Soft Machine around 1969/70. This tune is such beautiful, so gentle! Here, Keith’s slowly moving piano dominates, while Julie sings the short text passages so innocently with such a caress for their friend, so that the vocals almost rest in the background until the passionate middle section and at the end recede again.
After all, what is this special psychedelic element here? It is Julie’s extraordinaire vocal technique and the particular orchestration of the overdubbed voices. It sounds absolutely surreal! At the time of its release, this album was totally uncommon, and because of this, not a big seller, for sure. It is high time to take it out of the eclipse of the 1970’s ancient memory case, and let it’s sun rise anew!
The original LP was released in the U.K., Germany and the U.S. on Utopia in 1975; this short-lived U.S.-based label was productive in the 1970’s and owned by the Gomelsky Eggers Music & Information Company Ltd. Along with reissues on CD by Blueprint (1999) and the remastered versions by Disconforme (2000) and Air Mail Archive (2005), you can quite easily find original copies on Discogs and Amazon.
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