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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bennie Maupin: Early Reflections


Multi-instrumentalist Bennie Maupin is known mostly for his work with Lee Morgan, Horace Silver, Andrew Hill, and especially Miles Davis (Bitches Brew, Big Fun, On the Corner) and Herbie Hancock (his Mwandishi and Headhunters bands). Great credentials, to be sure, but his own musical creations are just as visionary. He's an admirably tasteful player who truly speaks through his horn; his tenor sax sound is full of earthiness, warmth and soul, and the gutsy hum of bass clarinet is unmistakable. And he ranks quite high in my list of favorite flutists with an astoundingly deep, rich tone that envelopes the listener's ears. Maupin's career as a leader seemed to be on hold from the late '70s until 1998's Driving While Black, but a resurgence of interest in his talent has happened in recent years. Cryptogramophone released Penumbra in 2006. 2007 saw the much anticipated reissue of his 1974 debut, The Jewel in the Lotus. This year -- today, in fact -- the creative music champions at Crypto release Early Reflections.

Those already familiar with Maupin's music might recognize he rarely follows typical song forms, to thrilling effect. But even at their most abstract, his pieces are always anchored by insistent motifs and intriguing colors. Brooding numbers like "Within Reach," "Inner Sky," and "Escondido" expand simple melodies over a lush, lucent backdrop of piano chords and a hypnotic pulse. Maupin's bass clarinet feature on the latter is especially delicate; he always lets his musical ideas breathe, and this use of space and suspense is a true Maupin trademark. The Polish rhythm section -– pianist Michal Tokaj, bassist Michal Baranski, and drummer Lukasz Zyta –- shows a remarkable like-mindedness throughout the album. Their sensitive sound-painting is the perfect accompaniment for Maupin's ballads, and the more "charged" pieces contain some significant risk-taking (and rewards). "Inside the Shadows" and "Not Later Than Now" have some especially sneaky, witty interplay.

Some of the album's most distinctive tunes feature Maupin on soprano sax. On the sprawling "Atma," his pure tone works well in tandem with the reedy voice of Hania Chowaniec Rybka. He revisits "The Jewel and the Lotus" with a sprightly acoustic quartet approach, and his nimble, tearful, uninhibited solo is the high point of the album. But my favorite moment on Reflections is the alto flute melody on the haunting, languid "Tears." Maupin's mysterious, full-throated flute sound is impossibly beautiful.

Since his Penumbra "comeback" in 2006, Cryptogramophone has truly captured Maupin's essence: his expressive tone, his compositional mastery, and his instinct for the spontaneous. Early Reflections is an easy recommendation to longtime fans as well as a powerful entre for newcomers to his music. There's always something fresh about Maupin's playing, and this album opened my ears all over again.

Early Reflections (Cryptogramophone)
Bennie Maupin (tenor sax, soprano sax, bass clarinet, alto flute)
Michal Tokaj (piano)
Michal Baranksi (bass)
Lukasz Zyta (drums, percussion)

Be sure to visit Downbeast, the official Crypto blog. They have some coverage of Maupin's recording session (parts 1, 2, 3, and 4) and a link to a well-deserved mention in the LA Times.

[photo by Ewelina Kowal]

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