Page One: Charlotte Keeffe: Right Here, Right Now

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

Charlotte Keeffe, © 2021 Sean Kelly

Jazz and improvised music are perpetually on a generational cusp, with musicians leaving the scene as others arrive. Among its many impacts, the pandemic disrupted the emergence of new voices, and how they are received. Consider the shuttering of Minton’s Playhouse, The Little Theatre Club, or Studio Rivbea for comparable lengths of time when they were incubating history, and the fallout from the pandemic becomes vivid.  A hopeful, yet tentative reopening more than a year after the UK’s initial lockdown is double-edged; while the demand for live music has intensified, reduced capacity in most venues and a contraction of programming to sure bets in others may further affect the introduction and development of new artists.

Reopening also reframes the work realized through streaming and conferencing tools that flourished during lockdown, work that created new terms of engagement with listeners. It will either be deemed a short, self-contained phenomenon – like V Discs during WWII – or vital sinew between what Kevin Whitehead calls the beforetimes and wherever we are now. The UK improvised music community provides a credible case study of this. They were already moving onto YouTube, bandcamp, and Zoom when lockdown was announced on March 23, 2020. An abundance of rewarding work was produced on these platforms, much of it by lesser-known improvisers. Chalk it up to a half century of their hard scrabble DIY ethos, rooted in finding rooms above a pub to have a gig, and producing their own records and magazines. Undoubtedly, their online output during the pandemic will be studied and anthologized in the years to come, regardless of how it is ultimately contextualized.

If and when musicians whose emergence was put into suspended animation during lockdown will regain their prior traction will take months to fully ascertain. Some will spin their wheels, and others will stall. A few will be able to quickly pick up where they left off; fewer still will vault ahead, separating themselves from the crowded pre-pandemic field of strivers. If there proves to be a reliable profile for this latter set, it would include a productive, notice-garnering 2019, participation during lockdown in projects that used streaming and file sharing to exceptionally creative ends, and, upon reopening, creating synergy with a strong disc hitting the street a couple of press cycles before a high-profile gig.

It is a profile that fits Charlotte Keeffe well. Although she had only been on the London scene for three years after earning her Masters at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, the trumpeter/composer was seemingly everywhere in 2019; playing in large ensembles as diverse as London Improvisers Orchestra and London Gay Big Band (where she also served as assistant musical director); improvising in small, ad hoc groupings at Hundred Years Gallery, Mopomoso at The Vortex, and elsewhere; and notably leading a distinctive quartet, beginning with a Jazz in the Round set at The Cockpit Theatre that March.

Keeffe’s response to lockdown was two-pronged. She used what was, for her, an abundance of time – she was making two or three gigs a day, including what she calls “reading gigs” – refining recording techniques that eventually employed electronics to develop a body of solo pieces. Keeffe also participated in some of the more significant remote projects of the past year and a half. A trustee of the Mopomoso Trust, Keeffe was part of the team facilitating the series’ transition to YouTube, including its traditionally intensive holiday season concert schedule. She organized and led the LIO Zoom concert in February. At the invitation of clarinetist Emily Suzanne Shapiro, Keeffe joined the Lonely Impulse Collective, ten improvisers (many of whom play with LIO) who take turns posting solo pieces on their bandcamp site, the ingenious catch being that they are only accessible for 24 hours, which promotes frequent revisits – Keeffe has already put up over two dozen pieces. With multi-instrumentalist Martin Archer and percussionist Martin Pyne, the trumpeter shines on hi res heart (Discus), which blindfolded listeners are incredulous to learn was built through file sharing, and not performed live.

September and October 2021 found Keeffe once more gigging at full speed in an impressive array of contexts reflective of her versatility: London performances of composer Dan Samsa’s innovative Contours, which employs an immersive surround sound system in tandem with electronics and contemporary classical and jazz musicians; a swing through Devon with The Brass Monkeys, whose repertoire spans Lil Hardin Armstrong and Lester Bowie, in addition to a hefty book of originals; Birmingham and London performances of composer Andrew Woodhead’s ambitious Pendulums for bellringers, improvisers, and electronics; and “guesting” with singer (and Women in Jazz Media founder) Fiona Ross at Pizza Express. Keeffe also regained her stride on the London improvised music scene: a quartet set with Jason Kahn, Dominic Lash, and Mark Wastell at Café Oto; various groupings from a pool including Phil Durrant, Lara Jones, Emil Karlsen, and Maggie Nicols at Hundred Years Gallery; and duets with pianist Matthew Bourne at Daylight Music, and trumpeter and Spike Orchestra leader Sam Eastmond as an Unpredictable event at The Vortex. However, the signal event for Keeffe at that time was her quartet’s late September, limited-capacity gig at Café Oto to support Right Here, Right Now (Discus), her first CD as leader.

Like many discs with summer street dates, Keeffe’s was a bit slow to be recognized, which began to be remedied when the estimable Tony Dudley-Evans weighed in with a nearly effusive review on London Jazz News. Debut albums also have the liability of being considered merely as calling cards, a charge Keeffe dared by presenting solo, duo, and quartet pieces, as well as three contrasting LIO conductions; and double-dared by frontloading approachable tracks featuring electric guitar. Both Moss Freed in her quartet and Diego Sampieri in duet provide rich colors that contrast well with Keeffe’s sound, which not only reflects foundational influences of Miles Davis and Tomasz Stanko, but also has something of the brio of Enrico Rava’s mid-‘70s work with John Abercrombie. Ten minutes into the disc, and Keeffe had established a distinctive voice. Once listeners connect to a horn player’s sound, they will venture into less familiar territories. This, arguably, is Keeffe’s achievement with Right Here, Right Now, as she persuasively coheres everything from a stark multi-track solo (which one online wag likened to Miles Davis suffocating Herb Alpert) to abstract orchestra textures with the loose-limbed compositions for her quartet (rounded out by bassist Ashley John Long and drummer Ben Handysides).

All of this began to set the table for two appearances at the London Jazz Festival, co-presented by Women in Jazz Media. It’s plain why Keeffe is affiliated with the activist organization, as it extends well beyond the support of women in print and broadcast media to concert programming and workshops. Their inclusiveness is reflected in the triple bill presented at Toulouse Lautrec: Keeffe’s outbound quartet, the contemporary mainstream jazz of a scaled-down LGBB (in which both Keeffe and her partner, singer Lara de Belder, performed), and the grooves of DJ/drummer Ifelayo. Two days later at Toulouse Lautrec, an upmarket restaurant/piano bar/jazz stage, Keeffe and saxophonist Lara Jones gave an improvisation workshop “in a safe, open and welcoming space” for “all women, non-binary people, and those who don't feel seen or heard within the environment they make music in.”

These events not only position Keeffe as an artist on the brink of wider recognition, but as an emergent voice in the larger conservation about inclusivity in arts outreach. These are issues Keeffe knows from the roots up. She represents.


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Piano, not trumpet, was the Bourne-raised Keeffe’s first instrument. Beginning lessons at the ripe age of 4, it took her teacher some time to flush out that Keeffe was largely playing by ear; by pointing to a measure in a score that Keeffe was playing proficiently, the teacher discovered Keeffe suddenly struggled with it.

“It wasn’t until I was playing trumpet in [school] ensembles that I literally began connecting the dots, and read music more fluently and comfortably,” Keeffe, who took up trumpet at 10, recently recounted. “What was interesting was that, when I started to play trumpet – and this still happens to me now – I see the keyboard in my head, and I think that’s been really helpful for me. It’s interesting to know what other musicians – other trumpeters – picture in their minds to help them see and pitch the notes. To me, it’s just so natural to see it as a keyboard. Having said that, for the last few years, when I’m playing – especially with improvisations – I see more colors, more shapes, like an abstract piece of artwork. I’m seeing less of the keyboard in experimental playing, but it’s still there when I’m playing straight ahead.”

Keeffe always knew she wanted to go to music school, and continued both piano and trumpet lessons (she still plays piano at home). “With the trumpet being a more sociable instrument – because in school bands, there would be only one pianist but there would be a few trumpet players – it just turned out that I was doing more on the trumpet,” Keeffe explained. “When I got into the county youth bands and orchestras, there were some other girls playing the trumpet. But that’s been there from the get-go – ‘a girl playing the trumpet.’ It wasn’t a problem for me. I just did what I wanted to do.

“The reason I wanted to play trumpet was because of the sound of it. It still does – the sound of it makes me so happy. When I was 9 or 10, I didn’t even know what a trumpet looked like. I was aware of the sound, which is where my grandparents come into the story. It was the sound I heard on their recordings – Louis Armstrong, trad jazz, Glenn Miller stuff. I didn’t know exactly what all the instruments were, but I knew the trumpet was part of that. And it made me so happy. That’s why I wanted to play the trumpet – jazz and Louis Armstrong. Going through school, it was ‘yes’ to everything musical, so I ended up doing a lot of classical stuff with youth orchestras, learning to transpose on sight, blending in with other instruments, so it was mainly classical music for a while.”

However, when Keeffe auditioned for the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, it was for acceptance into the jazz course. Soon after her studies began, Keeffe found herself in competitive situations for the first time. “Jam sessions – that’s the one setting I found quite scary as a woman,” she confessed, “because I have often gone on my own and been confronted by a load of blokes who are all playing saxophone or guitar. It’s quite challenging to be seen and heard in that environment. Quite scary when I look back at it now, but I wanted to get out there as much as I could, and be seen and heard. You’d play blues and standards, pieces from The Real Book, Chet Baker things.”

At the same time, Keeffe was broadening her conceptual horizons and zeroing in on a trumpet sound through records like Bitches Brew and seeing Tomasz Stanko in concert. “I was mega attracted to Stanko’s sound and Miles’ sound, their long notes and how they come in with those long notes. At the Royal Welsh, there was a lot of transcribe this and transcribe that, but the challenge with Stanko and Miles was capturing their energy. I got that it wasn’t just about the notes, so I tried to play along and get that feeling, and that took quite a long time through the process of transcription. The feeling and the energy were the main things about Stanko, his grainy sound, his ideas, which were different.”

Keeffe also had the galvanizing experiences of improvisation classes with Keith Tippett. “When I think back on those four years of my undergrad, it’s those classes that stick out, in part because of Keith’s stories in between the playing. That definitely left a mark on me. I realized later, when I was finishing at Guildhall, that free improvisation was the road I wanted to go down because it led back to the reason I first wanted to play trumpet and play music – I just want to play. I just love standing there, playing in that freely improvised way, bringing everything together from nowhere.

“KT had a raw realness to him.  He would regularly and passionately declare things like how Charles Mingus ‘had one foot in the past and one foot in the future.’ His teaching and feedback were open and honest – it was clear what he liked and didn't like during the free improvisation performances he witnessed from us students, he delivered his comments and phrases with support and love. He was dramatic and fiery. I didn't realize at the time the impact he clearly had on me and my music making – he planted lots of seeds for me, even in the way he carried himself, and for want of a better phrase, the way he ‘demanded’ respect for himself too. Those seeds are flowering for me now.”

Keeffe’s must be the first generation whose decisions about post-graduate school were influenced by YouTube. Watching Sarah Gail Brand’s videos that are part of the Mopomoso archive convinced Keeffe that Guildhall was for her. “I thought, ‘Wow, there’s this woman who’s just grabbing the trombone by the scruff of the neck.’ And I knew I had to meet her and play with her. That’s what led me to the Guildhall, definitely one of the big pulls to go to London.”

Keeffe’s take-away from Tippett’s workshops was reinforced at Guildhall through free improvisation classes, where she made an important discovery. “There were great musicians taking the class, but they were not comfortable with improvising freely. And I thought, ‘wow, I’m really comfortable with that.’ That’s when I realized this was definitely what I wanted to do; I really want to jump into this swimming pool of sound.” A masterclass and performance given by Brand and percussionist Mark Sanders proved to be epiphanic. “It was a pivotal moment. I found parts of their musical conversation/improvisation genuinely funny, I wanted to laugh out loud, but no one else around me seemed to, so I thought I best not. Afterwards, I awkwardly asked Sarah if it was ok to laugh at this way of making music. Obviously, I got the answer I wanted, but it was another realization for me – this way of making music is so freeing, accessible and connecting to me and it can be ridiculous and ridiculously funny – fun! I’ve been learning and practicing music since I was 4 years old. I’ve never lost my love, or my passion; but being judged, critiqued, and examined along the way has sometimes been soul destroying.”


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The three years after Keeffe graduated from Guildhall was a uniquely favorable time to be a female trumpeter, given the UK jazz establishment’s championing of Laura Jurd and Yazz Ahmed – the latter also having attended Guildhall. Subsequently, Keeffe matriculated in multiple music networks apace; however, Keeffe’s connections with the improvised music community deepened quickly.

Like many new graduates, Keeffe sent out dozens of introductory emails: It would be great to connect with you. Can we meet? Can I play with you? For longtime observers of the London improvised music scene, it is unsurprising that Keeffe received welcoming replies from saxophonist Caroline Kraabel and multi-instrumentalist Steve Beresford, inveterate organizers whose propensity for outreach is an integral part of their respective aesthetics. Beginning in March 2017, Keeffe was playing with London Improvisers Orchestra.

“It was really like diving into the deep end of the pool,” Keeffe remarked. “Sitting in that orchestra and looking around, it’s like a history book. There’s Phil Minton sitting next to me. There’s Caroline, Steve, Neil Metcalfe – so many musicians representing the past 40 to 50 years of improvised music. Caroline has massively influenced me along the way – there’s that image of her playing the saxophone with her babies in the pram – the whole connection of music with life.”

Although she continued taking other gigs and teaching privately, Keeffe’s involvement with the improvised music community extended beyond performances and workshops. She worked with Kraabel on LIO’s 2018 20th anniversary residency at Café Oto, and helped John Russell set up what became the Mopomoso workshop group – and Mopomoso TV during the pandemic – as well as being part of a committee charged with recruiting more women improvisers. In short order, she had accrued appreciable sweat equity.

Keeffe had a lot going on, all of which came to a screeching halt with lockdown.

“It was really scary having everything dissolve from the diary,” Keeffe recalled. “I actually lost my voice for the best part of a couple of weeks at that time, which I think had to do with the shock of everything. I mean, I couldn’t hug my mum. All of that. But, I was grateful to have a roof over my head; and have three or four students who were happy to continue on Zoom, so I knew I had a little bit of income trickling in; and to be in a very loving relationship with my partner. When I got my voice back, I was grateful to be well.

“I quickly realized that I had to keep playing and developing, so I started recording myself in the bathtub because it was the only place in the house where the acoustics were fun to play with. So, I started recording these videos and put them online, and keep sharing the music I’m making in this way. So many people were doing things in this way.

“The only way I can describe it is there was this road I was going down that was suddenly closed, but there was another road in parallel, and I travelled down it. I learned how to record myself, invested in a set-up and a microphone, which is something I never thought of doing before. It was exciting to get into that world of microphone technique and what devices can do, and record myself properly and get out of the bathtub.

“And then there were online software programs I used to connect with people to play. I actually led a whole LIO session on Zoom on my birthday in February. It was great fun to connect with people all around the world with the flick of a button. To log in, and be with Maggie Nicols and Steve Beresford on a Zoom call was amazing. I think freely improvised music is really resilient in that context. If someone had interference or couldn’t connect, or if there were funny sounds going on, I chose to play with that, and make it a feature of the music rather than becoming annoyed or angry. Instead of throwing the computer out the window, I played with it, and that was what it was at that moment.”

Instigated by Martin Archer, hi res heart is something of an antithesis to a LIO Zoom: improvised music constructed remotely, layer by layer, over the course of days and even weeks. Although Keeffe had worked on previous Archer projects, she had never met percussionist Martin Pyne in person prior to the project, making it a first meeting unique to lockdown. Additionally, there was a pre-determined end product, an album. It was a new way of working.

“Even though I was improvising, I was conscious of whether we should have a faster piece here, or a slower piece there,” Keeffe explained, “but, there was no plan. We didn’t even have a Zoom call about it. Martin Archer was very open to whatever we would do with our layers. I was conscious about where the other musicians would want to fit in with their layers, but I didn’t know what they would do, if anything. So, the process had a lot of surprises.

“Each track took different lengths of time to make. For me, it was a fairly quick process to add a layer – maybe two or three days – but it took longer for me to start a piece, because I would think about how much space the others would have. I was quite in my head about it at first. Once I received the other layers to play on, it was a pretty quick process. It was bizarre; I would do two or three takes, but I would always send the first take because it was the most spontaneous. Sometimes, they had things in them that I wasn’t completely happy with, technically, but they were the ones that felt the most musical and connecting for me.

“At the beginning of the year, during the third lockdown, I realized that I was doing a lot of recording, I was getting too much in my head, and everything was sounding and feeling awful to me. When I realized that I was listening to the negative voice in my head, it really was as simple as breathing and stretching my body that seemed to magically reset myself. I was able to let go of the heavy negative voice that leading me to a stickiness and I was able to let the music breathe, too. Recording hi res heart helped me to let it go and share it, instead of holding back, deleting everything. Even though Martin Archer decided the order of the tracks as they appear on the album, they do sound very connected with one another, even though they don’t appear in the order they were created. That’s the exciting thing about it – it does sound like we were all together, even though it was a completely remote project.”

Projects like hi res heart are by-products of lockdown, untransferable to live performance. Keeffe’s pieces for LIC fall roughly into the same category, even though she will continue to use the extended techniques and uses of electronics she developed when she was isolated. She sees the work that Mopomoso developed online in a different light, part of an ongoing merging of online and live performance. Keeffe considers it as a step towards what John Russell called “breaking the bubble,” releasing improvised music from its insular environs, a process not to be confused with the recurring quixotic dream of making it popular. Rather, breaking the bubble places improvised music in the midst of the cultural landscape, albeit as a minor feature or contour, rather than in its traditional hermetic enclave.

“Of course, I know it’s not an easy listen for some folks. I get that,” Keeffe concedes. “I want to inspire people to find their creative freedom – I want a creative freedom for all.

“I’m back making music live now in front of an audience. I’m going into it stronger and with more clarity, and I think lockdown and the work I did contributes to that, particularly the Mopomoso work and being in touch with John close to the end. He was so driven and passionate about getting improvised music out to the world. It definitely rubbed off big time on me.”


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“Workshop” can be used as a noun and as a verb in the context of jazz and improvised music. The workshop initially was a place, the laboratory where music is developed like film. Charles Mingus made the workshop mobile when he began using “Jazz Workshop” to identify his groups in the late 1950s. Implicitly, it altered the experience of performances from one where completed work was heard to one where processes were witnessed.

As a verb, workshop indicates the conveyance and development of concepts and methods: “They workshopped a relay system, transmitting a phrase around the group.” Instead of the red-lighted room where photographs are made, it is the emulsifying that produces the photograph. Ideally, inchoate and embryonic notions emerge into perspective-rich ideas, trajectories to be extended. Creating those conditions is the trick.

Workshops have played a noted role in the promulgation of improvised music in the UK for decades. John Stevens, Maggie Nicols, and Eddie Prévost head a lengthy list of leading practitioners who have used workshops not only to inspire and fortify successive waves of musicians, but to engage diverse populations otherwise unconnected to improvised music, its aesthetics, and its methods.

Generally, there are two groups of participants in improvisation workshops. One is qualified at least to the extent that they are proficient instrumentalists and recognize improvisation as essential to their skill set. The other is comprised of folks with little or no musical experience. Prévost’s workshops often attract the former, with many attendees creating substantial work, clearly influenced by his emphasis on critical thinking, close listening, and attention to the granular. With The Gathering, an ongoing meeting open to all, Nicols mixes the two groups in an environment that supports the novice aa well as the more adept.

Stevens’ pedagogy has been celebrated for a half-century. Nicols regularly attests in interviews that Stevens’ – also Trevor Watts’ – tutelage in the early ‘70s was foundational to her sensibility as an improviser, generally, and as the facilitator of The Gathering. Stevens also wrote, but he did not venture into the occasionally barbed polemics of Prévost’s books. Instead, Stevens collected his ideas in Search and Reflect, a manual for teaching improvisation originally published in 1985, its utility indicated by the 2007 rockschool edition, printed on heavy stock as a spiral notebook.

There are two equally important metrics by which to assess the work that created Search and Reflect – pedagogical and social. Stevens’ exercises endure, with simple propositions like Click Piece, based on the shortest possible sounds, and Sustain, based on breath-length durations, remaining workshop staples. Beginning in 1983, Stevens pioneered using improvisation workshops for social outreach, bringing music-making to isolated populations in disabled homes and drug rehabilitation centers, as well as traditional venues like schools. His idea of promoting wellbeing through music-making has evolved, particularly in the current work of Sarah Gail Brand, who uses improvisation in her work as a music therapist.

Keeffe’s iteration of the improvisation workshop as an instrument of outreach is shaped not only by the examples of Stevens et al, but also by the current concept of a safe space, especially for women and non-binary people, which was emphasized in the promotional literature for her workshop with Lara Jones held during the London Jazz Festival. Keeffe’s goal is simple, and common to all facilitators: she wants the participants to play. To this end, she feels it incumbent upon her to understand the participants, discover how they first connected with music, why they want to improvise, and how they came to the decision to attend the workshop, a line of enquiry never made of her at workshops during her student years. Like Prévost – whose workshops she attended after her graduate studies – Keeffe conducts her workshops with the participants in a circle to promote close listening.

From there, Keeffe turns to exercises from Stevens’ book, organizes improvisations for both all the participants and for smaller groups, and takes questions along the way. “The exercises in Search and Reflect allow you to respond to what you’re hearing, as do many of things I’ve learned from conductions with London Improvisers Orchestra, like playing very quietly so that everyone hears each other. I’m very influenced by the way Caroline Kraabel uses hand gestures.

“I’ve used some of these approaches with the Mopomoso workshop group, which is very much about meeting and playing. What I like about that situation is that, after we play, we talk about what we did and how we felt about it, likes and dislikes. That can lead into the next improvisation, so we are building one experience upon another.

“I like to use the metaphor of an instrument being a sound brush, and how, in my own case, the flugelhorn is a thicker brush and the trumpet a finer brush. I find that the idea of placing a shape here or a splash of color there connects with people. They understand the relationships of colors and shapes within a painting and how those elements work together on a canvas. It is an idea that people rather easily apply to improvising, and once they hear it, they get the idea.”

However, nothing is set. “There is an element of improvisation in giving a workshop,” Keeffe explained. “You’re in a moment when you’re discovering that this person has specific interest, while that person has no experience or confidence in any of this. So, you improvise as you go; that is certainly the case when I co-lead with someone like Lara.

“For me, the beauty of free improvising is that there is no right and there is no wrong. It’s all about how it feels for the individual. I want to encourage them and have them experience this collective freedom people can have when they improvise together.”


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There is a moment in every horror film where the protagonists breathe a sigh of relief, a return to normal secured. And then ...

Something similar occurred in the UK in late November with the sudden appearance of Omicron, the easily transmitted COVID variant first identified in South Africa. Marvel Studios couldn’t come up with a more sinister sounding name for a villain. Initial steps taken by the Johnson government included international travel restrictions and stricter mask rules, but they stopped short of mandating vaccination passports and other more severe measures. Although fully understanding the efficacy of current vaccines was weeks away, experts were already assuring the public that recently developed antivirals should reduce the risk of severe illness and hospitalization. Keep calm and cautiously carry on was the message.

For Keeffe, the specter of a potential surge looming over holiday preparations had not dimmed the afterglow of her LJF performance and her workshop with Jones. A fortnight later, she still beamed at the idea that people danced during her quartet’s set, and that 16 people attended the workshop, including several with straight-ahead jazz backgrounds. She was particularly pleased with a new ice-breaking exercise of having each participant play a brief statement at maximum volume – a keeper. Her 2022 schedule was already filling out: UK tours with her quartet and with Cath Roberts; trips to Switzerland and Belgium to, respectively, play solo at the Ear We Are festival and a duo concert with drummer Andrew Lisle at a Dirk Serries-curated event; and late-year gigs with Martin Archer’s Anthropology Band and the first real-time convening of the hi res heart trio. It’s full speed ahead until further notice.


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