Louis Tillett is something of an unsung national treasure, a gifted pianist and songwriter whose songs are steeped in jazz, blues and R&B, but infused with the energy and spirit of punk. His lyrics are impressionistic and often mystical, and if there's an obvious comparison to be made here, it's with Van Morrison. His singing is soulful, yearning, sometimes full of wonder, and at others full of dread. You know something's on his tail.
As a side-man, his playing has pulled hard rock bands like the Beasts of Bourbon and the New Christs in new directions. His first group of note was the Wet Taxis, then Paris Green, and though Ego Tripping is billed as a solo album, it's really an extension of that band, with three key collaborators: drummer Louis Burdett, guitarist Charlie Owen (both of whom were also playing in the New Christs at the time), and saxophonist Diane Spence.
Burdett's drums drive the opener, Trip To Kalu-Ki-Bar, at a brisk pace but it's immediately obvious this isn't a standard rock record. Tillett's piano is high in the mix, then Spence swoops in on soprano sax with the hook that defines the song. It's not post-punk in the vein of Ed Kuepper's Laughing Clowns, nor is it jazz fusion: the songs are too concise for the latter and too traditional in structure and execution for the former.
But the flexibility of the musicians helps make Ego Tripping an album of variable moods and shapes, with a shimmering dreamlike quality you can completely lose yourself in for a little over half an hour. I listen to it and invariably, by the end of it, I feel like I've been transported and woken up somewhere else, even if, as the title of the last song has it, it's a dead end street in the lucky country.
Swimming In The Mirror is still startling, an old song which Tillett first cut with Died Pretty guitarist Brett Myers and Celibate Rifles singer Damien Lovelock on a one-off single. This version is far more arresting, beginning with Tillett's foreboding piano overlaid with wash of cymbals, before bursting into full-throttle rock & roll. Burdett again leads from the back as Tillett sing-songs lyrics pitched somewhere between Lewis Carroll and Marc Bolan:
Nights and lights and poodle bites,
And silver roosters in full flight
Screeching, calling, climbing, falling,
Making lots of sound!
Butterflies with devil's eyes
And rolling thunder in the sky
Still I find there's nothing I can do
But swim around with you...
As Burdett accelerates to double-time, Owen cuts loose with the sort of solo that explains why Paul Kelly was moved to write a song about his playing - a furious attack that's at odds with the rest of the song's mellifluousness. On the even more hallucinatory Dream Well, about a sky-worshipping spirit which floats atop a bed of 12-string guitar, Owen's extended coda is a match for Tillett's night-flight of fancy.
At the album's centre is a cover of Allen Toussaint's On Your Way Down, featuring just Tillett and Owen. It's a blues standard that's resonated down the years in countless other people's hands, but few have got to its essence as Tillett does. Taken slowly, Tillett's patience gives the morality play extra gravitas. He's watching and waiting: "The same dudes that you use on your way up, you might meet up on your way on down."
The joyful Persephone's Dance is perhaps the album's high point. The verses are in waltz time before breaking into the chorus, wherein Tillett's piano and Spence's sax roll and tumble over one another like two children rolling down a hill together. In this instance the music is so lyrical it needs no words at all; remarkably, this instrumental song was released as a single. In a just world, it would have been a hit.
It's not a just world. Louis Tillett has had a difficult life, battling serious mental illness and periods of homelessness. He is celebrated by a small coterie of admirers at home and abroad, and has the undying respect of some of this country's finest musicians. In 2000, a documentary was made about his life called A Night At Sea. It concludes with him admitting himself to a psychiatric hospital after a performance.
The final song on Ego Tripping, Dead End Street In The Lucky Country, is the saddest, Owen's moaning slide guitar framing a down-and-out narrative:
The telegraph wires are singing
Soft words he cannot speak
Siren's tears roll in his ears
And quietly flood the desert street.
If the song concludes Ego Tripping on a mournful note, it's far from depressing overall and I introduce you to it with near total confidence that you'll enjoy it. That's because it asks nothing of you - no particular musical taste or predilection - only that you accompany Louis on his strange, magical journey. At times, you might find yourself sitting in the gutter with him. And he'll be there alongside you, inviting you to look, look up, look at the stars.