Always the bridesmaid, rarely the bride, Bennie Maupin has spent most of his career supporting other artistssometimes as a featured soloist, but more often as a background colourist. Since the mid-1990s he has stood in the shadows more than ever, concentrating on teaching and leading community outreach projects. Penumbra is his first album in eight years.
Maupin first came to attention in the late 1960s playing tenor saxophone in Lee Morgan's band. He then became best known as a bass clarinettist, first with Miles Davis (he was featured, famously, on Bitches Brew), then, from 1970-1976, with Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi and Headhunters bands. He carried on working with Hancock on and off, on a variety of horns, until the 1990s.
All of which might suggest that Penumbra is an unplugged jazz-rock album. It's not, though traces of those experiences can be heard. Maupin was a sideman in the Davis and Hancock bands, and his own roots lie elsewhere. In interviews, he's identified his formative influences as Yusef Lateef and Alice Coltrane, and Penumbra is an inventive continuation of the tripped-out, post-John Coltrane, multi-cultural astral jazz forged by Lateef, Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders in the mid-1960s. There are just two overt nods to jazz-rock, the soprano-led "See The Positive" and tenor-led "The 12th Day," each forceful and extroverted, and each lasting less than three minutes.
The core of the album is seven ostinato-driven astral tracks, copiloted by Maupin and bassist Darek Oleszkiewicz, who lock together to play the themes and bass patterns (pitch aside, these are often identical) in unison or as canons, richly and prettily decorated by drummer Michael Stephans and percussionist Daryl Munyungo Jackson. These tracks are punctuated by shorter, freer interludes, and the album closes with a near-conventional, shades of "Flamenco Sketches" ballad featuring Maupin on piano, sounding something like a cross between Errol Garner and Red Garland.
With the exception of the closing "Equal Justice," Maupin is less concerned with linear melody and harmonic development than he is with textures, impressions and atmospheres. "Message To Prez," a delicately breathy, bass clarinet-led, mutant-calypso lovesong to Lester Young, is the apogee of this approach. Maupin mostly plays bass clarinet (five tracks) and tenor saxophone (four tracks), with astral jazz's favoured alto flute heard only on the lonesome and evocative title track, over Jackson's rippling thumb piano.
Maupin is blessed by his accompanying musicians, who play with real empathy (Stephans has worked with Maupin for ten years, Jackson for thirty). There are precious few, if any, overdubs, and it all sounds very fresh and organic. Lovely, off-planet musicplease don't make us wait another eight years for more!
Personnel: Bennie Maupin: bass clarinet, tenor and soprano saxophones, alto flute, piano; Darek Oleszkiewicz: bass; Michael Stephans: drums; Daryl Munyungo Jackson: percussion.