By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
|Michael Ochs Archives|
|Listen to Horace Tapscott:
IN THE MIDDLE OF THE '70s, WHEN I MOVED TO
Los Angeles, the Empire was striking back. Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver were safely on ice. Abbie Hoffman was a fugitive. The take-drugs-and-tear-things-up Rolling Stones were being supplanted by the take-drugs-and-take-a-nap Eagles.
And I was not ready for my nap. A decade late, I was forced to seek heat in the most radical music ever made, accessible almost nowhere at the time except on record: the furious '60s improvisational group blowing led by artists such as Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and John Coltrane. So when I spotted a newspaper listing of Horace Tapscott's Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra at the Watts Jazz Festival, I banged my fists against the wall in delight.
That stage creaked under the weight of some 30 musicians. I mean, there were fourbassists. The music heaved and swelled like an ocean before a storm, and the man at the piano stirring it up was a tall, skinny dude with an open face and intense eyes, who would now and again stand up, wave his mantislike arms and lash the Arkestra into a passion. It was music of the spirit, meant for people who had no power over the world. People like me, I thought. But no, not entirely; I had the education, and the approved skin tone -- the keys to the earthly kingdom. Regardless, I felt this music would not refuse me.
The Arkestra's Watts Festival exorcisms became a yearly ritual. I needed the group's power; I also looked forward to hair-raising solo testimonies from the likes of saxists Gary Bias and Charles Owens. And I've sought out many other encounters with Tapscott and his smaller bands. At Fifth Street Dick's, his old comrade Thurman Green blew depthful trombone on a relaxed, boozeless New Year's Eve. At Catalina's, Roberto Miranda tore pages of Iberian expression from his bass while Fritz Wise ticked off geometric percussive frameworks. At the Long Beach Day of Music the weekend Miles Davis died, Michael Session's tenor poured a torrent of begrieved dignity over "Milestones." And in some forgotten Westside basement room, Tapscott delivered his soul to an audience you could count on your fingers.
Maybe if I had experienced some of the other pianists who emerged from Houston's Third Ward -- including Tapscott's mother, Mary Lou Malone -- I would have spotted direct precedents for the way he plays. As it is, though hints of Monk or Garner influences may peek through, Tapscott seems unique. There's his surging, casual approach to rhythm. There's the way he tromps the sustain pedal to layer masses of harmonic information. And he turns to triple meters more than any other jazz composer. Whatever the mood -- joyful, wrathful, playful -- Tapscott's music pulls in two directions at once: feet in the dirt, eyes to the sky.
Considering Tapscott's 50-year public presence, it's been remarkably hard to hear that music. A peak of visibility occurred when Prestige released Sonny Criss' misleadingly titled Sonny's Dream (Birth of the New Cool), a 1968 suite of tunes written, arranged and conducted by Tapscott and swung by a 10-man all-star ensemble based in Los Angeles. Tapscott's 1969 The Giant Is Awakened (Flying Dutchman) introduced altoist Arthur Blythe's hardheaded blues bite to the world. Two volumes of The Dark Tree (Hat Art) show the great clarinetist John Carter, drummer Andrew Cyrille, bassist Cecil McBee and the pianist spitting sharpness like a nail gun. And it's a blessing that Arabesque recorded a couple of well-conceived sessions (Aiee! The Phantom and Thoughts of Dar Es Salaam) in recent years.
Valuable as these are, it's nearly perverse that the meat and bones of Tapscott's music -- his working groups, the Arkestra and his solo flights -- have been documented almost exclusively in 15 1978 to 1984 albums on the tiny Nimbus West label (5356 Oxbow, Las Vegas, NV 89119-2864). Nothing can touch the full-on spirit of a local Tapscott performance -- the smiles exchanged, the neighborhood feel. But these rarities provide a clue.
I WON'T TRY TO GET TOO DEEP INTO TAPSCOTT'S life; he did it far better than I ever could in last year's
superb L.A. oral-history book Central Avenue Sounds (University of California Press). But it's a rich story.