Centipede was an English jazz, progressive rock, sprawling big band boasting in excess of fifty members, created and led by the British free jazz pianist Keith Tippett. It was founded in 1970, bringing together an array of young talented British jazz and rock musicians from a number of varied bands, including from Tippett’s own The Keith Tippett Group, along with musicians from Soft Machine, King Crimson, Nucleus and Blossom Toes along with students from the London School of Music.
In what proved to be a relatively short career, Centipede actually managed to perform several concerts in England, toured France, and recorded a double album, Septober Energy, which was produced by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, before disbanding at the end of 1971, although the band reformed briefly in 1975 to play at a few French jazz festivals.
The album is being re-released at the end of September 2022, in the form of a new Esoteric Recordings edition which has been newly remastered from the original RCA Records master tapes and includes an illustrated booklet with a new essay by Sid Smith, a freelance writer who is associated with King Crimson and wrote the biography of the group, In The Court Of King Crimson.
From the beginning, you have to admire the ambition here. Avant garde musician Keith Tipett essentially created the band to play the extended composition he had been working on called Septober Energy. It consisted of four movements, or concepts, that the musicians were required to improvise around. It was initially played live at a number of venues in the UK and France before the enormous band recorded the double album in the summer of 1971 prior to its release in October of that year. Although he had performed live with the band, Robert Fripp acted solely as producer on the album due to the pressures that were involved.
The jury is always going to be out on the success or otherwise of music such as this. It is everything that you might think it would be. It is without doubt a demanding album to listen to and is probably more free style jazz than it is progressive rock. For the most part it is vastly uncommercial, quite abstract, unfocussed, brilliant and inspirational (it is believed that Mike Oldfield was sufficiently stirred to create Tubular Bells as a result of attending one of the concerts and would go on to select the album as one of his top ten favourites). Parts 2 and 4 are definitely more consistent as pieces, the experimentalism of Parts 1 and 3 being somewhat of their era. There are brilliant moments, especially in the solos, and some of the vocals bring an alternative feel to the more frantic music at times. Equally, some of the vocals are more than a little bit annoying and seem a little incongruous. Although it is unlikely that you would have the time, or indeed the patience, to regularly listen to Septober Energy all the way through, it is valid to consider that the work as a whole requires the oddness and the brightness to counter balance one another. That is the best way to appreciate the concept.
Much of the mystique of this album, since its original release in 1971, in all probability comes from its association with other acts, especially King Crimson. It is likely to appeal to listeners attuned to the avant garde and free jazz. If you always prefer your music more structured and melodic then you are going to struggle with it. Although it straddles jazz and progressive rock it never becomes obviously jazz-rock or fusion, unless you take the idea of fusion in a loose sense. But there are some similarities with Soft Machine’s output, and the jazz and rock combination that the likes of Miles Davis were purveying in the 1970s. You would doubt that a record label today would again sanction an album quite like this one. There is absolutely no eye on commerciality, and the impression is given that the musicians were left alone to continue with what they were signed up for. The label was fully aware of Tippett’s intent and still considered it a worthwhile project. Perhaps it reflects a time when labels were as much interested in artistic intent as they were in creating money. This is undoubtedly an insane but brilliant piece of music, split into four roughly twenty-minute parts. It moves through different phases from basic noise making to melodic soloing. It has verve and risk-taking allied with a daringness that makes the listener uncomfortable. The incongruities agitate and disturb, but for those willing, and indeed able, to stay with it this is a very rewarding listen. Challenging and formidable. A very nice, well thought out package with the inclusion of the well-illustrated booklet with its knowledgeable notes.
1 Septober Energy – Part One.
2 Septober Energy – Part Two.
1 Septober Energy – Part Three.
2 Septober Energy – Part Four
Wilf Gibson (lead)
Ian Carr (doubling flugelhorn)
Mongezi Feza (pocket cornet)
Mark Charig (cornet)
Elton Dean (doubling saxello)
Jan Steele (doubling flute)
Dave White (doubling clarinet)
Karl Jenkins (doubling oboe)
John Williams (bass saxophone, doubling soprano)
John Marshall (and all percussion)
Keith Tippett – musical director
Robert Fripp – producer
Re-release date: 30th September, 2022
Label: Esoteric Recordings / Cherry Red Records