Kevin Whitehead // Point of Departure (décembre 2020)

When someone called it an ARKestra, he’d correct them: it’s ArKEStra. As Horace Tapscott (1934–1999) says in his autobiography Songs of the Unsung (written with Stephen Isoardi), he’d borrowed the term from other-pronunciation Sun Ra, along with the connotation of an ark as protector/conservator ship encompassing diverse organic activity. But for Tapscott the name also suggested an ark of a covenant: a repository for The Word. Communal, nurturing, ennobling: that was Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra, a product of 1960s idealism the bandleader/composer kept going for decades. Free gigs all over black Los Angeles, at fairgrounds, parks, and prisons, made them familiar community fixtures. But until Tom Albach’s Nimbus label began recording them in 1978, they were unheard on record (and not so widely heard even after). Tapscott, who did not suffer racist slights quietly, had gotten a reputation as difficult on the LA music scene; labels were not lining up to wax the band. The Arkestra organized a record session of its own in 1972. The studio burned down the next day, with the tapes inside.

Ancestral Echoes is, so far, the earliest Ark recording available; by 1976 early comers like Arthur Blythe, David Murray, Wilber and Butch Morris, and Will Connell had already moved on, succeeded by a brace of younger players. Like Sun Ra, Horace Tapscott believed in communal living (for the youngsters at least), to facilitate marathon rehearsals and skills-building. They memorized the music. (Saxophonist Jesse Sharps: “You have to really, really know it in your heart so that you can make some force with it.”) The band was a broad mix of ages, abilities, and professional experience, and included a couple of women: Adele Sebastian on flute, PAPA co-founder/motivator/composer Linda Hill sliding in on piano Strayhorn-style when Horace conducted. As with Amsterdam’s political Orkest de Volharding, members might debate whether to accept certain gigs, depending on who was asking. Still, the Ark was so closely associated with its founder it went by the metonym PAPA, which was also what the newbies called the leader.

The kickoff “Ancestral Echoes” begins with The Word, a recitation from poet Kamau Daáood serving as general introduction (we are the seeds rooted in the cosmos of african clay/we are the spears thrown into the future…). From there Tapscott’s 1968 suite begins in earnest, his solo piano briskly moving through a few themes and moods – pastorale, kid’s song, dreamy arpeggios, a two-handed chase – as if playing a theatrical overture. But the main theme arrives only when the pianist hits a syncopated groove five minutes along, and the conga-fortified two-basses/two-drums rhythm section joins in. The triplety 18-beat cycle that stumbles at the end is the sort of tricky pattern you stop counting once you learn it: when you know it by heart and can make it forceful. (The rhythm section sticks to it one way or another from then on, the staccato tattoo ever-present, a Hollywood jungle telegraph.) One by one, Tapscott piles on the orchestral layers, entering a minute apart: lava-flow melody for brass and soprano sax; backgrounded countertheme led by flute, doubled by low brass; bari sax and bass clarinet in step with the stomping rhythm. It’s a dense soup, constantly stirred, as sections enter and exit, and with room for individual swerves. (The full band, about 20 strong, was heavy on saxophones.) The synco-pounding continues through the solos: Steven Smith with his strikingly dark trumpet tone, and sleek and antic style not beholden to obvious models, wings precariously across the horn’s range; Jesse Sharps evokes Coltrane’s soprano timbre and velocity more than his lines. He articulates every note, no wiggle-fingered bluffer.

Layers of horns over looping grooves suggest maverick Angeleno Charles Mingus. The parts Tapscott writes aren’t difficult, but they pile up neatly. The moanin’ Mingus echoes are plainer on Horace standard “Sketches of Drunken Mary,” written for a homeless woman back home in Houston, whom neighborhood folks would look out for in a friendly way, though she might show up drunk at church. The central motif is a slightly tipsy chromatic descent over a dignified triple meter, motif that spreads from the rhythm section to the horns, embossed by Wendell C. Williams’s French horn and Lester Robertson’s high trombone. Solos are from Michael Sessions, on raggedy alto draped over the slow changes, and Aubrey Hart on nimble leafy flute.

“Jo Annette” dating from the 1960s is by Ark charter and sometime member Guido Sinclair. With its catchy repeated melody, buoyant rhythm and streamlined harmony, and tuba bass (Red Callender, ever-ready for a quixotic project), this version suggests the Ark’s heavy influence on Arthur Blythe’s mature music. Flute effectively colors the caravan-by-camel horns. Turbulent tenor Charles Chandler brings the Coltrane velocity and feints toward “My Favorite Things” more than once. Fair enough. “Jo Annette” shows how well splashy modal harmony serves such big-gesture music; you can hear a clear link to McCoy Tyner’s churning 1970s bands. (In the book, Horace says McCoy once told him, I keep hiring guys and then finding out you had them first.)

The biggest of these epics is saxophonist Fuasi Abdul-Khaliq’s “Eternal Egypt Suite.” Adele Sebastian’s flute solo over droning arco basses is a hieroglyph for a float down the Nile. Her tone is sweet, and she darts around at length, till the horns jump in with a bashing fanfare and swelling long tones, a backbeaty curtain-raiser for Tapscott’s pedal-down piano maunder. Finally PAPA unveils the high-stepping 11/8 figure that will propel the suite for the next 16 minutes. (The “Mission Impossible” staccato episode suggests a Tapscott guilty pleasure: not Lalo Schifrin but Desi Arnaz’s Afro-Cuban showband.) The Ark could sail long; on this suite especially, the trancing aspects of repetitive music are a factor.

Tapscott wouldn’t ask a musician to solo who wasn’t ready, but throughout Ancestral Echoes, he lets them go a long while instead of leaving you wanting more: Wendell Williams’s heroic, hooting French horn solo on “Jo Annette,” say. “Eternal Egypt” accommodates only four soloists in 27 minutes; at 14 “Jo Annette” has more than enough time to explore the possibilities. (“Drunken Mary”’s the shorty, barely 10.) Rich as the program is, one might fairly argue it crams 40 minutes worth of material into 70. But then expansiveness came with the territory – all-day rehearsals rarely breed concision. Horace Tapscott took a long view. He had his own conception of time.


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