Thursday, November 30, 2017

ADIFF ’17: Horace Tapscott, Musical Griot

He led the other Arkestra—the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. Obviously, Sun Ra was an influence, but unfortunately, the late, great Horace Tapscott never has a chance to discuss the man from Saturn in his long-awaited documentary profile. Barbara McCullough focuses more on his reminiscences of early days and formative influences in Horace Tapscott: Musical Griot (trailer here), which screens during this year’s African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

Like many jazz legends, Tapscott originally hailed from Texas, but his family relocated to Los Angeles at the height of the Central Avenue scene. Sadly, Tapscott left the planet in 1999, but McCullough had been documenting him off-and-on for three decades, with a rotating crew that including future indie filmmaking luminaries, such as Charles Burnett and Julie Dash. Throughout the film, she concentrates on Tapscott’s music and memories, with one exception. Tapscott’s high school mentor, Dr. Samuel Browne emerges as a real hero and secondary subject of Griot, which is clearly what Tapscott would have wanted.

It is too bad Tapscott never recorded for a major minor label, unless you count a one-off for Flying Dutchman, because his music still sounds fresh today. Perhaps the closest comparison would be later Andrew Hill, because they share similarly open and challenging harmonies, but remain tethered to strong rhythms and reasonably structured melodies. Like Hill, he fit right in that sweet spot between modal hardbop and experimental free jazz.

Wisely, McCullough lets viewers hear plenty of Tapscott, including his compositions: “Lino’s Pad,” “A Dress for Renee,” “Raisha’s New Hip Dance,” “The Giant is Awakened,” “Sketches of Drunken Mary,” and “Ancestral Echoes.” By far, the best performances McCullough captured came from a trio gig at the Village Vanguard, featuring Andrew Cyrille on drums and Roberto Miguel Miranda on bass. It is definitely Tapscott’s film, but jazz fans will also be interested to hear from contemporaries like Don Cherry and Arthur Blythe.

There is some terrific music in Griot, as well as some highly dubious politics. The CIA is chartered to gather and analyze intelligence from international sources, so it is highly doubtful they had any interest in a jazz artist, especially since he was never signed to a major label. Regardless, Tapscott’s legacy is his music and it definitely holds up over time. Highly recommended, Horace Tapscott: Musical Griot screens this Saturday (12/2) at Teachers College, Columbia, as part of the 2017 ADIFF.