Yes, Horace Tapscott’s work was largely a holdover from the days of the Black Consciousness movement. (Its resolute mix of modal, spiritual, avant-garde, and Afro-jazz might have fit well on Strata-East Records if Tapscott hadn’t been in L.A., about as westerly as it gets.) Yet if anything, the pianist, composer, and bandleader’s music and message—they’re inextricable—have only become more urgent in the 20 years since his death. Why Don’t You Listen?, a live performance at the Los Angeles County Museum of Arts from July 1998, is as fresh and vital as if it were made yesterday.
Tapscott would be dead seven months later, of the lung cancer that was already ravaging his body this night at the museum. It didn’t impede his inventiveness or momentum, let alone that of the 10-piece version of his Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra or 12-voice Great Voice of UGMAA choir. They thoroughly recompose Ellington’s “Caravan” as an Afrobeat incantation. Dwight Trible’s shouting lead vocal is matched in intensity by a screaming alto saxophone solo from Michael Session—but it’s the rhythmic troika of drummer Donald Dean, conguero Najite Agindotan, and percussionist Bill Madison who hold the steady rolling sway. They’re even more firmly in command (though they share duties with another, bass-playing trio: Alan Hines, Trevor Ware, and Louis Large) on “Fela Fela,” then a brand-new tribute to the recently deceased Fela Kuti, with a harder-accented groove that carries the choir’s joyful Yoruba singing.
The museum’s visitors don’t seem particularly attentive; their audible chatter makes Tapscott’s “Why Don’t You Listen?” seem particularly on-the-nose. Perhaps frustration fuels that song’s especially fiery performance, with Tapscott’s piano percolating even more than Agindotan’s congas and the choir rising to a howl at the midpoint (interpolated by a melancholy solo vocal from Carolyn Whitaker). By its close, the audience responds fervently; you will too.
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