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Bennie Maupin: Miles Beyond

By Published: September 12, 2006
AAJ: What can you tell me about the Afternoon of a Georgia Faun (ECM, 1970) session?

BM: The first one we did was on the ESP label. There's a piece I perform on called "Exhibition." That came back out on CD about a year ago, it's called Marion Brown Quartet (ESP, 1965). On that one we had a whole side almost tour-de-force where he and I play against this really moody kind of thing. It was exciting working with Marion and his compositions, and his support of what I was doing really enabled me to have a completely different outlet. I hadn't played music with any kind of free form like that, no real chord changes. We were working around some kind of rhythmic motif, some kind of melodic idea, and then we just did some kind of theme and variations improvisational things.

My earliest recordings, I'm very proud of them. That enabled me to break free of the tyranny of a sequence of chords. Sometime later we did Afternoon of a Georgia Faun with Chick Corea, and all the great people who appeared on that. That's one of the most beautiful recordings I've ever done. When we were in the process of doing it, I thought, this is so special.

First of all, I was so excited that so many of my friends are together in the studio doing this. The reason we were there, was because Marion wanted everybody to be there. When it was released, I had no idea that music could even sound like that. We did another one called Juba-Lee (Fontana, 1966). I know it's on CD now too. That has Dave Burrell, Beaver Harris, Alan Shorter, Reggie Johnson on bass. There's some playing on there by Alan Shorter that is unbelievable. Alan was a unique talent, and it's unfortunate he didn't get to be capture a lot, because he was really playing some unique music. Just as personal as what you hear from Wayne, in his own way, but Alan was playing flugelhorn and trumpet. I remember distinctly on one tune that we played, and Alan didn't have a mute, but there was a Kleenex box in the studio. And he played into the Kleenex box, and it completely changed the character of the horn. I was messed up by it; I was mesmerized by what he was playing and by the sound that he was getting, because he'd completely altered the sound of the flugelhorn.

AAJ: How'd you meet Miles?

BM: I met Miles through Jack DeJohnette. I used to play a lot with McCoy [Tyner], for a couple of years. Miles would be around New York sometimes making the rounds. Miles used to pop into a joint we used to play in on the Lower Eastside called Slug's. More than one night, Miles came in, he might have stayed every bit of about three or four minutes and then he would be gone. But he would pop in, listen to a little bit, kinda say hi to everybody, and everybody would be in awe of him because he'd be dressed so well and his Ferrari would be in the middle of the damn street. He heard me there, he heard me play bass clarinet as a matter of fact. I started bringing it out with McCoy first, before I played with anybody, really. Jack, of course, went with Chick [Corea] and Dave [Holland], and everybody's working with Miles.

So when the thing started coming up, I got that call. Miles wants me to come. Of course, I wanted to play the saxophone, but that wasn't what was supposed to happen then. I never did play the saxophone with Miles, only bass clarinet. That was probably one of the greatest things that could have happened to me because what it did for me was set me apart from all the other saxophone players. A lot of people don't even think of me as a saxophonist, they think about the bass clarinet.

AAJ: From what I've heard about Miles' method of using cues and rhythm with freely improvising musicians, it seems like your ensemble work with Marion Brown would have been similar to the Bitches Brew process.

BM: It was, it was in its own way, you're absolutely right. They wanted the music. They didn't want the mechanicalness of it. They wanted the essence of it. Miles knew how to get it. He put the right people together, as you can see throughout history. Any group that he assembled did something that was special, that they're known for. And it just so happened that all these great peers of mine were involved in this particular project. He put us together, and he just turned us loose, gave us the forms and said do whatever the hell you want to do. That was it.

He wanted to create something that had never been done, and he knew how to get it. He opened it up to us, he let us be ourselves. He never once said anything to me about what I played, except, "I don't know what you're playing, but I want some more of that." He was like that, totally encouraging. He'd say, "Play a little bit more," because I'd be getting ready to stop sometimes. The way the situation was, I'd be standing next to him, he would be on one side, and Wayne Shorter was on the other.

So, here I am standing between these two guys, like, damn, I can't believe this. Miles would say, "Go ahead play some of that stuff you play," he's whispering to me while the tape is still on. He talked to me a lot during that recording. He just walked up whispering advice. "Let's play this melody again." He's one of the absolute masters of nonverbal communication. I hooked up with him sometimes, he didn't have to say anything to me and I knew what he wanted. It was the same with Wayne, those two were like Frick and Frack. When you listen to the stuff they did with Herbie [Hancock], Ron [Carter], and Tony [Williams]? Whew.

When we were in there, when we were doing it, it was hard to tell what was happening, because there was so much happening. We were all elated to be there, first of all with Miles, and then when it came out, people just went crazy. People loved it, people hated it, some people said they'd never listen to Miles again. I was confused. I was like, "Damn, music can have that kind of effect? It's just music. We did that, and a month later we recorded one called Big Fun. It got completely overshadowed, because Bitches Brew made so much noise. It made so many people go crazy. It created so much controversy and criticism, and Miles knew precisely what he was doing. He just rocked the boat. That's what I learned from him. You just gotta be yourself. I learned that from him, and John [McLaughlin] told me that one night.

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