Bennie Maupin, whose bass clarinet work helped define Miles Davis' classic Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969), was an equally key contributor to Herbie Hancock's 1970s Mwandishi and Headhunters groups. In light of this, it's hard to believe that he has released only six albums as a leader during his lengthy career. One bona fide classic, The Jewel in the Lotus (ECM, 1974), sadly awaits issue on CD, and another disc comes very close: Driving While Black (Intuition, 1997).
But while both of these records had clear precedence in Mwandishi and electric Miles, Penumbra is an all-acoustic affair, featuring long-time associate Daryl Munyungo Jackson on percussion, drummer Michael Stephans and bassist Darek "Oles" Oleszkiewicz. Chordless groups aren't particularly unusual, but by focusing on bass clarinet and using two percussionists instead of the more conventional two horns/bass/drums lineup, this quartet occupies a darker, earthier space. The grooves range from the fiery swing of "Vapors," featuring Maupin on soprano, to the 6/8 funk of "Tapping Things," where Maupin's bass clarinet delivers the elliptical theme in unison with Oles, before opening up into a more interactive conversation. There's little here to jar the senses.
Still, this may be Maupin's freest session. "Walter Bishop Jr.," featuring Maupin on tenor saxophone, is the kind of modal music that Coltrane might have made if his vision had been less intense. Rather than creating sheets of sound, Maupin concerns himself with space, allowing every note to breathe. Every now and then a flurry of notes evidences his instrumental facility, but he's more concerned with a tranquil sense of the spiritualclose, at times, to Charles Lloyd's more meditative work.
Oles has only emerged on the Los Angeles scene in the past few years, and his debut as a leader, Like a Dream (Cryptogramophone, 2004), demonstrated an equal marriage of technique and spare economy. The bassist proves to be a remarkable listener here. On the free-ish but clearly form-based "Level Three" he manages, along with Stephans' astute brushwork, to anticipate Maupin's every move. Jackson is sometimes so subtle as to be almost invisible, meshing seamlessly with Stephans on the guarded ebullience of "Message to Prez," but more up front on "See the Positive" and "The 12th Day"the two most uplifting tracks on Penumbra.
Maupin contributes rich alto flute to the African-tinged title track and blends European classicism with American concerns on the closing ballad, "Equal Justice," proving himself a capable pianist. But the bass clarinet is his main axe, and the solo "One for Eric Dolphy" is both an homage and statement of individual intent. Penumbra may surprise listeners expecting Maupin to carry on the electric vibe of The Jewel in the Lotus and Driving While Black, but in many ways the looser organic nature of this effort makes it his most personal and satisfying record to date.
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Personnel: Bennie Maupin: bass clarinet, tenor and soprano saxophones, alto flute, piano; Darek "Oles" Oleszkiewicz: bass; Michael Stephans: drums; Daryl Munyungo Jackson: percussion.