Sunday, December 9, 2012

Horace Tapscott: The Dark Tree, Volume One

The amazing pianist Horace Tapscott made a fateful decision about fifty years ago to forsake the grueling life of a traveling musician to maintain a permanent base in south-central Los Angeles, where he labored long to promote both music and community, especially through his organization (first, in 1961, U.G.M.A.--the Underground Musicians' Association and then reconstituted as U.G.M.A.A--Union of God's Musicians and Artists' Ascension).  Far from the spotlight, he worked mainly in obscurity and was little recorded, but he had a significant impact on those he dealt with and for.  Late in life, he finally was receiving some long overdue recognition and more frequent opportunities to record his excellent compositions and document his impressive style on his instruments, before he died too young at age 64 in 1999.

YHB had the opportunity to see Tapscott perform several times.  The first was at a free performance at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, when nothing was known about him.  That changed in moments when the pianist erupted into a beautiful torrential solo peppered with amazing arpeggions and punctuated by precise applications of his sustain pedal.  There was also a fiery series of solos by saxophonist Michael Sessions that stood out, as well.

The next trip to the record store (it was the very early 90s!) yielded a search for Tapscott recordings and there were only two CDs in the bin, volumes one and two of a live recording called The Dark Tree on the foreign HatHut label.  It was pricy, but so worth the expense.

This was true because of the remarkable compositions of the leader, because of his irrepressible playing, and because of the excellent support he had in clarinetist John Carter, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Andrew Cyrille.  While Carter was not particularly well known, his playing was stunning, wide-ranging and compelling on an instrument not often found in jazz (though the young clarinetist Don Byron was getting a lot of attention in those days and the great Eric Dolphy is a great favorite of this blogger.)

With McBee and Cyrille there are two of the giants of jazz drumming and bass playing, musicians whose resumes are filled with stints with some of the finest bandleaders of the last fifty years, including AMERICAcacophony favorites like Sam Rivers and Cecil Taylor.  Tapscott couldn't have asked for a better rhythm section to back up him and Carter.

The title track is generally considered Tapscott's masterpiece and this is a thunderous performance with McBee's repetitive and hypnotic bass and Cyrille's crystal-clear and march-like drumming setting the tone for the others to solo off of.  Carter is especially awesome on this piece, conjuring up all kinds of wonderful sounds and turning in a virtuoso performance.  Tapscott's soloing is majestic, thundering at moments and then releasing the tension a bit before building it up again.  Hearing him on a long solo often reminded this listener of the ocean, stormy seas, puncutated by thick block chords, giving way to placidity as waves of sound emerged from the instrument in ways that really were unique to his playing.

The other tunes, while not as earth-shaking as "The Dark Tree," are all excellent Tapscott compositions, with "Sketches of Drunken Mary" and "Lino's Pad" both in sprightly waltz time and the former having a melody that seems to evoke the intoxicated state of its subject, who was someone the young Tapscott knew well in his native Houston.  "Lino's Pad" is another feature of Tapscott's expressive and impressionistic playing.

Horace Tapscott (1934-1999), a great jazz pianist and community leader and builder.

Something needs to be said about the fact that this awesome disc was recorded at Catalina Bar and Grill in late 1989.  The current Catalina facility is a far larger and less intimate one than the older venue where this show was recorded and where this blogger spent many happy hours in the early to late 90s hearing some incredible jazz, including a few performances by Tapscott, in which this blogger sat at a bistro table directly behind and to the side of the pianist as he worked his magic on the keyboard.

Truth is, you cannot get a better concert experience than that--sitting within inches or a few feet from masters improvising and interacting with their fellow musicians as the crowd (small, but highly appreciative and empathetic) soaks it all in.  It was a great pleasure to witness the great Horace Tapscott perform and it was a sad day when reading about his unexpected death in 1999.

Recently, a combined double-disc package of the two volumes of The Dark Tree has been issued, but the cover art shown here is for the original, very hard-to-find, 1991 edition of the first volume.

One other recommendation:  John Isoardi's 2006 book on Tapscott is also called The Dark Tree and is a fascinating interview/narrative that details his life from his upbringing in Texas, to his military service, to his short career on the road, and then all of amazing work he did in Los Angeles.  YHB read the book just several months ago and raced through it with great interest.

Horace Tapscott:  The Dark Tree (Volume One)  (Hat Hut, 1991)

1.  The Dark Tree  20:56
2.  Sketches of Drunken Mary  11:32
3.  Lino's Pad  16:46
4.  One for Lately  10:24

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