Last weekend, I heard Bennie Maupin at Cryptonight (hosted by Club Tropical in Culver City), celebrating the release of his newest album, Penumbra. As with any Maupin performance, you can never really know what to expect, but then again, why try to anticipate anything? Open minds and in-the-moment listening are always rewarded when listening to Maupin; his music comes from a truly spontaneous place, where the listener can hear him making choices in each second. He’s incredibly and attentive, never knee-jerk reflexive, and the sincerity of his music is its most refreshing quality.
Maupin is perhaps best known for his work with Miles Davis (on his later electric explorations like Bitches Brew, On the Corner and Big Fun) and Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi and Headhunters bands, but he also spent time with Horace Silver in the ‘60s and Lee Morgan near the end of Lee’s career in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. His mid- to late-‘60s performances with Andrew Hill are similarly dark and gorgeous. The first time I heard Maupin was on an LP of Hill’s One For One with a rhythm section and string quartet (though the album’s very hard to find, a few tracks are on Hill’s Mosaic Select set). All this to say Maupin’s career has been a long search for heartfelt, innovative sounds with bandleaders who have always nurtured individual talent, no matter how raw or adventurous their voice may be. Maupin is capable of these moods and much more.
The group’s performance was emotionally wide-ranging and using any and all techniques to birth his ideas. The first notes of the evening were actually the sound of Maupin breathing through the bass clarinet with drummer Michael Stephans and percussionist Munyungo Jackson rubbing their hands together. While many listeners may think this is a little “new-age”-y, these sounds were actually quite familiar sounding, very human sounds. More often than not, the group’s overall sound was fairly subdued (much like the muted, breathy mood of Penumbra) but rich with ideas and revelatory moments. Maupin’s bass clarinet is low and reedy, and his alto flute work is similarly full, throaty and pure.
On the other end of the spectrum, the group was visceral and fierce on a tribute to pianist Walter Bishop, Jr. (much more so, in fact, than on the album). His tenor sax tone ranged from husky and burnished to piercing, shuddery and powerful. Bassist Robert Hurst was solid while grooving (many of the tunes were vamp-based), but he also pulled off some blazing lines during a couple solos. Stephans and Jackson worked incredibly well in tandem. Jackson truly uses any and all of his instruments to flavor the sound of the group – a true tone colorist. That doesn’t mean Stephans is just a time-keeper; his drumming is some of the best I’ve seen for a group like this: very open, responsive and dynamic, his brush-work is especially crisp and creative, and he can make the group “swing” no matter what kind of groove they’re in.
Maupin joked that both he and Hurst hail from Detroit, “a city known for violence, sex, rock and roll, and once in a while they make a car.” Reflecting on the city’s working-class history, he mentioned that, as is the case with his family, the working class of any city “has some real heavy roots.” The hard-working ethic, as well as an appreciation for roots, was certainly passed down to Maupin. He focuses and fights for every note he plays. He possesses a wealth of musical ideas, but it isn’t just an arsenal that he digs into and uses like all-purpose tools. In fact, his musicianship is never mediated by made-to-play licks or even the musical language itself. His music can sometimes be simply sounds or space and sparseness. Maupin pointed out that, as any musician knows, “the real music lies in the spaces between notes.” Seeing him live, the listener truly realizes that each moment finds Maupin “creating something from nothing… the true Detroit spirit.”
P.S. Be on the lookout for an upcoming release with Maupin and Dave Liebman on Challenge Records.