I was ecstatic, yesterday, to find the first volume of Horace Tapscott's The Dark Tree. It only takes a few minutes of the title track for it to live up to the hype: John Carter lingers dispassionately high above the dark, dark ostinato Cecil McBee and Andrew Cyrille are hammering down, before diving in fully. Tapscott layers on thick, roiling piano textures that manage to change just enough for the whole not to be too static. The ostinato lightens for Tapscott's own solo, which allows him the space for ominous texturising and frantic, stumbling-over-itself line-spinning. It's just a fabulously intense performace throughout.
"Sketches of Drunken Mary" starts as a more traditional swinging waltz, but with an appropriately tipsy feel. "Lino's Pad" opens with a military snare drum pattern that's great because you can hear the drum's metallic overtones (that's a sound I've always loved). The pattern and a bass vamp anchor a more relaxed, bluesier version of "The Dark Tree" ostinato, in seven and with a swinging bridge in four. The alternation threatens to get a little tedious over sixteen minutes, but doesn't, not quite. Tapscott gets to mix percussiveness and rough-hewn lines to great effect.
Carter pulls off the trick of always seeming just a little distanced, but audibly tearing it up at the same time. He creates high drama in "Lino's Pad," suspending the action by ending phrases with strangled whispers in the kettle whistle range, before grandly swooping into something else. It's only on "One For Lately" that his sound seems to emerge from the heart of the ensemble, rather than descend upon it from above.
The final track recaptures the brilliance of the opener, but takes an opposite route: complex, abruptly zigzagging interaction that lives off an unstable energy stuffed into a compact ten minutes. It never settles into anything near a groove, but is tense and fascinating all the same.