This is music scarcely on the radar screen of American popular culture. When faced with such genius, one realizes the depth of cultural trivialization that has overtaken our country. If there were such a thing as justice in this world, Horace Tapscott would have been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pulitzer Prize--heck, a Nobel Prize. Instead, he labored in the cultural backwaters of East LA, building community, bringing along promising young musicians who probably would've never gotten a chance without his mentoring, and recording almost exclusively on the tiny West Coast label, Nimbus.
On one hand, we are indeed fortunate to have this remarkable recorded legacy, The Dark Tree, volumes 1 and 2. On the other hand, it's a travesty that this music will probably never achieve its rightful place in the Pantheon of popular culture. Instead, artists completely bereft of talent, pandering to society's lowest moral and aesthetic common denominators, pollute the airwaves, win all the awards, and get all the glory. What a shame!
But in this day of quasi-cultural democracy, mediated to us by people like the folks at Amazon, monumental slights, such as Tapscott's relegation to the dust-heap of cultural history, can at least be ameliorated.
Horace Tapscott was a jazz musician of the absolute highest accomplishment. A brilliantly original pianist, deeply swinging, fleet-fingered, hard-driving, able to voice nearly the entire history of jazz piano in a single solo, nay, all of Western music (check out his sly quote of "We Three Kings" in "Lino's Pad"), possessed of a prodigious technique and unbounded energy, these qualities are magnificently on display on the two Dark Tree outings. Recorded in front of a live audience at the Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood, CA, in 1989, there's a stunning electricity, a hard-swinging vibrancy, an almost impossibly deep groove in these sessions.
A good deal of the glory of this music is likely due to the leader being in the presence of entirely like-minded and equally brilliant bandmates: avant-garde warrior Cecil McBee on bass, who navigates his instrument with such surpassing dexterity even as he gets the fattest, toughest sound imaginable from it; the inimitable Andrew Cyrille, perhaps THE most distinguished free drummer ever, and the huge presence of clarinetist John Carter, himself one of the most important chroniclers of the African diaspora's musical experience, as well as being perhaps the greatest practitioner of jazz clarinet in the history of the music.
Equally important is the extremely high quality of the compositions. Each has a profound weight, an almost unfathomable insistence, yet wrapped in a dancing, inebriated, mock glory that belies their grandeur. Mesmeric, insistent, complex yet entirely accessible, these songs bespeak a lifetime of communality, struggle, and eventual triumph by dint of sheer perseverance. Yet, there is not the slightest whiff of maudlin solipsism, cheated glory, groveling self-pity, or slighted entitlement. Instead, as with the finest of avant-garde jazz, there's a kind of insouciant, flip-you-off casualness amid an organized chaos that bespeaks the full monty of deal-with-it, in-your-face musical essentiality. Huh?
No mistake, these lads are trippin', and at the highest possible level.
Here's the deal. You know what this is? Cecil Taylor that you can actually like; Anthony Braxton that makes sense; Wadada Leo Smith sans the radical weirdness. This, in my humble opinion, is the finest black American folk music ever recorded.