Saturday, May 16, 2015

Horace Tapscott: The Giant Is Awakened

It's hard to believe it's been a quarter century since this blogger went to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on a Friday evening and, before going to see the exhibits, happened to stop to hear a free jazz concert out in the museum's plaza.  There was the mesmerizing, powerful, brilliant pianist Horace Tapscott, whose The Dark Tree, Volume One was highlighted here previously.

Tapscott forsook what could have been a major career in jazz to stay in Los Angeles, work for his South Central community, raise his family, and create a number of ensembles to play his remarkable music.  While largely unknown to the public, if not to musicians, Tapscott's dedication and devotion to community was amazing.

In 1969, producer Bob Thiele, who had left Impulse Records, where he worked closely with John Coltrane and others on that major label's roster, was developing his own imprint, Flying Dutchman.  When he contacted Tapscott about recording with him, the pianist was suspicious, echoing the general concern black jazz musicians had about record labels and producers and the exploitation that was usually the case in these situations.  Thiele, however, convinced Tapscott to enter the studio and the result was the stunning The Giant Is Awakened.

Tapscott's quintet included stalwarts of his Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra big band, most of whom are all but unknown, including the rhythm section of bassists Walter Savage, Jr. and David Bryant and drummer Everett Brown, Jr., but the trio play beautifully and sensitively (Brown especially) behind the soloists, comprised of Tapscott and "Black Arthur Blythe," the altoist, who later dispensed with the first part of that name, but also went out to become one of the great saxophonists for the 1970s and 1980s, best known as a member of the great World Saxophone Quartet.

In fact, this album is largely an opportunity to hear some of the earliest recorded work of this master and Blythe is just staggering with his phrasing, power, clarity and confidence.  He proves to be a perfect counterpoint to Tapscott, whose command of the piano is no less impressive here than in the later records for which he had some reputation, particularly The Dark Tree live albums and the solo work he did for Nimbus West, of which some examples will be featured here subsequently.

"The Dark Tree" is, in fact, present on this recording, but in a much shorter and less awe-inspiring version than would be found on the 1989 live performances.  Instead, the title track here is the centerpiece, at over seventeen minutes, and it is actually no less impressive than the later versions of "The Dark Tree."  Much of this is due to Tapscott's writing and arranging, in which he brings out the most of tension, space, power and energy to give himself and Blythe all of the opportunities for expression in their solo work that they can give to the piece, with the bottom held firm by the rhythm section.  "The Giant Is Awakened" should have, in a better world, been more than true to its title and given Tapscott more recognition for his talents.

The too-short "For Fats" is a contribution by Blythe with its staccato rhythm and dual melodic statement by the alto and piano providing a memorable structure and then a bit of an avant-garde touch behind Blythe's keening and very impressive soloing, particularly on the second run.

The misnamed "Nyja's Theme," rendered as "Niger's Theme" is a tune Tapscott would revisit a number of times.  Here a dual-note phrase by the bass and piano leads into a statement by Tapscott with a martial drumbeat and then the memorable melodic statement rendered by the piano and Blythe's crystalline alto.  Blythe solos first and pours out a torrential fire of a solo, showing why he would become one of the greats on his instrument.  Tapscott, from the 5 minute mark on, then issues forth some of his signature soloing techniques, including dramatic block chords, the use of the sustain pedal to create atmospheric mood and uniquely angular phrasing.

Tapscott's reticence in working with a major label was such that he requested involvement in the mixing--an entirely reasonable suggestion given the care he put into every aspect of his music.  However, that promise was broken, only reinforcing the mistrust the pianist and composer felt about the music industry.  It would be a full decade before he recorded again and then only for small labels that dealt with Tapscott more fairly.

It's a shame that this arrangement couldn't have worked out better, because The Giant Is Awakened is an amazing record, assured, confident, performed with great skill and comprised of three works by the leader that showed his genius for composition and performance.  By all rights, this man should have been given some of the opportunities afforded other pianists of the time--if Keith Jarrett could have gotten an ECM behind him, why couldn't have Tapscott had something similar?

At least, we have this one masterpiece to show the talent the late, great Horace Tapscott possessed.

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