Due to his limited exposure outside of his native Los Angeles, pianist Horace Tapscott was largely unnoticed by the mainstream jazz press throughout his lengthy career. A galvanizing force in the Los Angeles scene, Tapscott co-founded the Underground Musicians Association (UGMA), later known as the Union of God's Musicians and Artists Ascension (UGMAA) in 1961, which eventually lead to the formation of his Pan-African Peoples Arkestra. Beyond the valiant support of Nimbus Records, little documentation of Tapscott's oeuvre exists, other than a few sides cut for such labels as Novus, Hatology, and Arabesque, most now long out of print.
The Dark Tree is one of those revered dates, a live session recorded at the Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood in 1989. Originally released in two separate volumes by Hatology in 1991, it has been reissued as a two disc set, delivering on the promise of its reputationinvoking the spiritual ecstasy of New Thing era free jazz and loft scene era Black Nationalismwithout sounding dated or histrionic.
A harmonically unfettered and unabashedly percussive pianist, Tapscott's angular themes and unusual time signatures are a natural outgrowth of the innovations of Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols, and early Cecil Taylor. Given free reign in this live setting, the all-star quartet of Tapscott, clarinetist John Carter, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Andrew Cyrille unleash a bracing combination of ecstatic free jazz, primal groove and opulent lyricism, lending credence to the date's legendary status.
The centerpiece of the record is the 21 minute title track, presented twice, with one take per disc. An ostinato fueled vamp of subterranean bass, menacing left hand piano refrains, and insistent snare accents, it features Carter's stratospheric clarinet cadences spiraling into oblivion, which set the stage for Tapscott and Cyrille's expansive ruminations. The leader's extended solo is a hallucinatory mosaic of ringing tones and hypnotic dissonances, with Cyrille's pneumatic variations building to a dramatic finish.
The remainder of the set exudes a similar energy, veering from the lilting 6/8 waltz of the carefree "Sketches Of Drunken Mary" to the crisp martial rhythms and labyrinthine bop interludes of "Lino's Pad." Carter sits out three of the five selections on the second volume, leaving ample room for Tapscott and his rhythm section to stretch out, especially on the epic "Nyja's Theme," a loose 3/4 vamp spotlighting Tapscott's kaleidoscopic variations, McBee's sinuous lyricism, and Cyrille's percussive invention.
A welcome reissue from a criminally under recognized composer, The Dark Tree is a stirring document, worthy of the attention of anyone interested in the full spectrum of jazz history.