Of the ECM titles that have remained unavailable on CD, woodwind multi-instrumentalist Bennie Maupin's The Jewel in the Lotus (1974) has long been considered a holy grail for collectors in search of a vinyl copy, and a title that's been on many fans' wish lists for release on CD. Well, it's finally happened and it's been worth the wait. Those familiar will recognize it as still classic thirty years on; for those unfamiliar with its magic, it's time to get acquainted.
Fellow Headhunter Herbie Hancockappearing here alongside another Headhunter member, percussionist Bill Summerswas pursuing more groove-centric music on Headhunters (Columbia, 1973) and Thrust (Columbia, 1974). Maupin's debut as a leader is more structurally opencloser in aesthetic to Hancock's Mwandishi group than Headhuntersand, with the exception of occasional electric piano, all-acoustic. It's also an album that ranges from near-pastoral beauty to fiery free play; proof that Maupin, Hancock and Summers' more rhythm-happy Headhunters was a choice, and by no means a definition of their artistic rangealthough those familiar with Hancock and Maupin will already know that.
With drummers Frederick Waits and Billy Harta Mwandishi alumnusjoining Summers, one might expect The Jewel in the Lotus to be both denser and more rhythmically charged. But while there are defined rhythms on tracks like 'Ensenada,' the percussionists are almost on their own as Maupin, Hancock and bassist Buster Williams (another Mwandishi connection) float above them, recalling early Weather Report tone poems like the late Joe Zawinul's 'Orange Lady.' Even when the playing becomes increasingly abstract and abstruse, as it does on 'Mappo' and 'Excursion'both also featuring guest trumpeter Charles Sullivanthere's an expansive attention to atmosphere that makes even the greatest extreme strangely beautiful.
Maupin is best known for his unmistakable bass clarinet workespecially on albums like Miles Davis' seminal Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969). Here, while it's heard on the intense 'Excursion' and gorgeous rubato closer " is Past,' featuring some of Hancock's most resplendent playing of the set, it's only part of Maupin's greater array, with 'Ensinada' and, in particular, two multi-layered miniatures'Past + Present = Future' and 'Winds of Change'proving him equally compelling on flute.
Maupin's soprano saxophone meshes with Williams' arco bass and Hancock's electric piano on the lengthy intro to the nearly ten minute title track, creating a sound that's other-worldly yet still somehow grounded. As the tune takes on a clearer rhythmalthough, with the open-ended playing of Hart, Waits and Summers it's more suggested than directMaupin and Hancock take their most delineated solos of a set that's largely defined by empathic ensemble interaction.
Maupin's writing is often marked by richly distinctive lyricism, but it's the ongoing interplay of this sextet/septet that makes the album so remarkable. Like the attention to space paid by the three percussionists, there's a gossamer-like ethereality to these extraordinarily multi-directional conversations, making The Jewel in the Lotus a masterpiece that, at long last, is back in print.
Personnel: Bennie Maupin: reeds, voice, glockenspiel; Herbie Hancock: piano, electric piano; Buster Williams: bass; Frederick Waits: drums and marimba (left channel); Billy Hart: drums (right channel); Bill Summers: percussion, water-filled garbage can; Charles Sullivan: trumpet (2, 3).