"Did you all see what just happened?" said Jesse Sharps from the Jazz Bakery stage last Sunday night. He was referring not just to the mass of musicianship displayed during the 10th Annual Horace Tapscott Tribute Concert, but to the eerie confluence of events that led to Leimert Park poet Ojenke reading off the roll call of Tapscott's students/collaborators in the Pan Afrikan People's Arkestra (PAPA). When he read the name of Ark pianist Nate Morgan, who is currently on the mend from a stroke, the side door opened and -- unbeknownst to the incanting poet -- in came Mr. Morgan in a wheelchair with his posse of family and caregivers. Nate quietly sat in a baseball cap and watched the stage as 21 of his best friends and colleagues lit into one of Morgan's own compositions, the brassy and swinging "Mrafu," which featured a young longhaired pianist named Austin Peralta, a senior (!!!) from the Crossroads School sitting in for Morgan on the song's shimmering and challenging solo intro.
The Tapscott tribute was the unofficial second part of a duo of gigs last week that brought together most of the musicians from the Leimert Park/Watts/Crenshaw scene encapsulated by Tapscott and the Ark. (Go here for our pal Greg Burk's account of the Nate Morgan benefit concert last week in Hollyweird.) We spotted so many familiar faces in the audience it was hard to keep 'em all straight! We said hello to violinist and John Coltrane collaborator Michael White, producer/radio host Carlos Nino, historian/Tapscott biographer Steven Isoardi and writer/salonist Mimi Melnick, as well as members of Tapscott's prodigious family, including wife Cecelia, who gave us a big smooch and hug. Gotta love that lady!
The tribute started a bit late with an introduction by Executive Baker Ruth Price, who introduced Tapscott's granddaughter Raisha on flute and great-granddaughter Madeline on piano. Taspcott's love of children and family was mirrored by the duo's warm-hearted version of the song "Children." Then Ojenke took the stage with his ropes of grey-dreaded beard and read the Ark "roll call" -- including Gary Bias, Lester Robinson, Leroy Brooks, "Black Arthur" Blythe, Everett Brown Jr., Al Hines, Linda Hill, Azar Lawrence, "Butch" Morris -- while Roberto Miranda and Nick Rosen duelled with bowed and pizzicato bass and percussionist Taumbu revelled in a randy drum showcase. Then the rest of the Ark, directed by Mr. Sharps, slowly took the stage, among their ranks trombonist Phil Ranelin, French horn player Fundi Legohn, flautists Kafi Roberts and Maia, trumpeters Steve Smith and Richard Grant and a downright dangerous saxphone section that included Tracy Caldwell, Michael Session (looking quite the hep elder statesman in a bright blood-orange vest and African cap), Fuasi Abdul-Khaliq and Randall Fischer. The stage was so densely packed that many players simply had to step out of the way (moving their music stand with them) while someone behind them soloed. Vocalist Dwight Trible stood to the side offstage almost in the dark and incanted and wailed to a nearly 15 minute version of "Justice" -- the highlight of which was a face-melting trombone workout by tie dyed daishiki-clad Isaac Smith. By the end, Trible was bathed in sweat, and the audience was shrieking out its approval and even, yes, ululating.
PAPA at UCLA, 1981 [photo by Mark Weber]
(What is it about the Ark that can make sounds so mournful while at the same time seeming so celebratory and rapturous? We vote for its signature sound: where a bandleader like Ellington emphasized the brass section, Tapscott seemed to favor putting the woodwinds to the fore of the mix, creating a delightfully indescribable Salvation Army band roil that could be described as "a stampede from an army of avenging and forgiving angels." Truly nothing like it.)
Next, Mr. Sharps conducted the orchestra on his big band arrangement of Nate Morgan's "Mrafu," which featured among others muscular bass solo from Mr. Miranda. Jesse then joined the ensemble on bamboo flute and soprano sax for the biggest surprise of the evening, the epic "The Thin Line," which was last performed 22 years ago. (There is a recording that exists from 1987 of Tapscott conducting the tune with an orchestra from Humboldt -- "which may be either Humboldt, California or Humboldt, Germany," related Steve Isoardi). The song is one of Tapscott's more difficult compositions, moving through at least five seperate movements, all of them radically different in mood and timbre. The band even threatened to seize up with the difficult score halfway through -- but managed to land the mothership back home. It was a fascinating high-wire act to see the musicians -- young and old both -- grapple with the dense score. And well worth it.
Coincidentally, Jesse Sharps will be returning to LA over Labor Day weekend to conduct and play with The Gathering at the Angel City Jazz Festival, co-curated by our very own Cryptogramophone Fearless Leader Jeff Gauthier. Check out these vids of Mr. Sharps in action:
Performing in 2007 at the late, great Crenshaw club The Underground Railroad
Performing Abdul Salim's "Song for My Children" at Mimi Melnick's Jazz Salon in 2007
And check out the cool video from the first Nate Morgan benefit last December at the World Stage in Leimert Park: