Keith Tippett and Andy Sheppard — 66 Shades of Lipstick (E.G., 1990)
The first fully improvised album I ever bought was probably 66 Shades of Lipstick. Pianist Keith Tippett had already had a distinguished career by then, and saxophonist Andy Sheppard was an up-and-comer, but to me in 1990, they were just blokes who happened to have an album on E.G. Records, the short-lived but vital label that produced Bill Bruford’s first Earthworks albums and the King Crimson Discipline trilogy that I so treasure.
Moreover, 66 Shades got picked by Jazziz magazine as the top album of the year. This was a bit unusual, as Jazziz had been a champion of the then-hot smooth jazz trend. Something this far off the beaten path seemed worth exploring.
For me, it was just a lark. My sincere interest in improvised music wouldn’t develop until later in the decade.
So how does this same album hold up, with all that experience now packing my ears?
I have to admit that back in 1990, I didn’t listen to 66 Shades very carefully. I liked the sound and I appreciated the experiment of it all, but my ears, trained by prog rock, were still seeking patterns and time signatures. I was watching a 3-D movie and trying to detect scents.
So, I gravitated toward the tuneful and catchy. “Shade 1” was the right start, with a wood block to putting percussive tickle on Tippett’s opening piano riff. That, and Andy Sheppard’s overly sweet soprano saxophone, were elements I could relate to.
What stuck with me most was this description of the improvising process, from Tippett’s brief liner notes: “The music had to be carved like sculpture from the air.” I love that metaphor, and I’ve stolen it on occasion. But comparing the results to the other improvised music I now own, whether jazz-oriented or more abstract, 66 Shades is below average.
“Shade 13” is a bare snippet but doesn’t have to be. I guess it’s believable that the improv ended organically there, but it also smacks of, “We’d better includes some short ones to show how spontaneous this was.” Likewise for “Shade 6,” which is a brief soulful melody, the kind that’s pretty but not at all special. Assuming they recorded 66 takes (which is where I’m assuming the title comes from), there must have been something more deserving of album space.
On the other hand, “Shade 9” is a hardy improvisation with prepared piano and some bass-note flourishes by Tippett, with Sheppard pursuing a robust stream-of-consciousness trail.
“Shade 3” is the first track on the album that made “sense” to me, in that Tippett presents a linear idea — ocean waves of tumbling notes, sticking to one musical mode — over which Sheppard adds grand flourishes. But with today’s ears, I’m more drawn to the fluttering and scribbling of “Shade 2,” a track I completely didn’t remember.
“Shade 5” is like a serious attempt at a symphonic film noir piece; it’s not bad but not something I’d return to frequently. “Shade 14” is a more appealing idea of taking a simple concept — a rapid-fire swirling, in this case — and just building from it. After a dervish-like start, it settles on a more moderate pace but keeps up that looping, swirling feel.
The E.G. label didn’t last long, so everything I own from its catalog is a keeper. 66 Shades might not top my list of favorites, but I’m proud of myself for giving it a shot, so long ago.