Bennie Maupin: Miles Beyond

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I feel like I'm at a point in my life where I've had valuable experiences with incredible musicians, and now things are coming through me in a different way.
For forty years, Bennie Maupin has played with the giants of jazz, starting with Roy Haynes, Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, McCoy Tyner, and Marion Brown. A call from Miles Davis put Maupin in the line up that recorded his most earth shaking albums including Bitches Brew (Columbia/Legacy, 1969), Big Fun (Columbia/Legacy, 1974) and On the Corner (Columbia/Legacy, 1972).

His instantly recognizable bass clarinet prowled the lower clef like a barracuda. After working with several Herbie Hancock projects, including his long term associations with the Headhunters, Maupin uprooted from NY to move to LA. While living a charmed life as a band member, his projects as a leader have been equally unlucky. The classic Jewel In the Lotus (ECM, 1974) has never been released on CD, and Manfred Eicher isn't returning calls. His two projects for Mercury in the late seventies are lost under the staggering number of buyouts involving Mercury's ever vaster parental conglomerates. Suffice it to say a used vinyl version of one of those albums, Slow Traffic Move Right (Mercury, 1976) is currently on eBay for $175.. 1998's well received tone poem on Intuition, Driving While Black, disappeared with its record company.

Now seeking to turn it all around, Cryptogramophone's Jeff Gauthier has released Penumbra, a gorgeous, accessible view into Maupin's current musical mind, an acoustic quartet that charms and challenges, and fully delivers on the promise of one jazz's living giants.

All About Jazz: How did you start playing?

Bennie Maupin: I played piano basically by ear when I was seven or eight. Some people had a piano at our house because they needed the storage space. They had migrated from the south. My parents had a house and we had enough space and they asked if they could leave the piano there. I learned how to play it to some extent. It was all by ear, but I just loved it. It was one of those old player pianos, you put the roll in there and you pedal it. That was my first act. After awhile I got so I could play things that I heard on the radio. Then they got a house and they took they piano, the piano was done, and the interim period between middle school and high school that's when I started playing clarinet. Then when I got to high school I wanted to change over because I thought I really wanted to play saxophone. The clarinet really gave me something that I needed. I didn't realize that till years later, some of the better saxophonists, they've all played clarinet.

AAJ: When did you pick up the bass clarinet?

BM: Not until I moved to New York. I played the Bb clarinet, and after a while I backed off on my classical saxophone studies. I felt I'd pretty much absorbed as much as I needed. I felt that I needed to polish some things I'd gotten from Larry Teal, and that's what I started to do. He taught me flute, and that helped immensely to put the energy into a different instrument.

As I said, Yusef Lateef was a big influence on my multiple instrument thinking. So, I definitely wanted to play the flute. He helped me translate things from the saxophone to the flute. I also went to the Detroit Institute of Musical Art and studied piano and harmony and theory and things that dealt with understanding how to compose. The bass clarinet didn't come until '65-'66, because I'd only been playing it two or three years before we recorded Bitches Brew. I was working on it all the time. I'd already heard Eric Dolphy. I met him when he and Coltrane came to Detroit. I had great opportunities to spend time with Trane and with Eric, just in listening situations. When you're really young, sometimes you don't need a lot of exposure to something because you can absorb so much of it so quickly. It's really about quality not quantity.

I only met Eric one time, but Eric gave me a flute lesson. They were there in Detroit for about a week. I went to see them every night. I always managed to find the money some kind of way so I could get in there, because I wanted to hear that music. Some kids were trying to get a pair of Nikes and go see the basketball game, I didn't give a shit about anything but being able to get in there, get my seat, get my apple juice, listen to this music. That's all I cared about.

AAJ: What was Dolphy like?

BM: He was beautiful to me. I tell people this story all the time. They played the most beautiful music. The first night the music was a complete shock to my system. It stimulated me so much, I came home after they finished playing and I couldn't go to sleep until the sun came up. I was in my bedroom and I was still hearing this music. My life was so buoyed up by what happened there. I'd never heard music like that before. I never knew people could play with that kind of energy before. I'd never been in a room where that happened. It transformed my way of feeling about what could happen. One night at the end of the night, John and Eric, they were standing there talking to people because there were always a lot of musicians around. I met John when I was 18, and I played with him when I was 18.

He'd come to Detroit, just kind of breaking through his thing, you know, left Miles, started his own band. He was a giant in a whole new venture with his own band, and he hung out with the Detroit guys that I knew. Guys all older than me, some of them had places where we'd have jam sessions, and Coltrane always came, whenever he was free. He'd always come out and drink herb tea with us and jam with us.

One night, I was down in the basement jamming. It was John Coltrane, and Joe Henderson, I think Charles McPherson may have been down in there, and I was in there and scared to death. But it was heaven. Cats were playing, and I was just enjoying so much the camaraderie. There was no competition going on, everyone was just playing a little bit. Coltrane was playing the soprano. He told me later, "I'm trying to develop something here with the soprano, I like it, but it's a real difficult instrument to play. I'm saying to myself, damn, after all the music I heard him play, he says it's difficult! Those things enabled me to have one-on-one contact with a lot of the really great players.

So, Eric was one of them this particular night. He came off the bandstand and was standing there talking to people, a couple of people were in line before me. By the time they said what they wanted to say, gave Eric his props and everything, talked about his music, asked him a couple of questions, it seemed like all the musicians knew each other and had friends in common that weren't even there. It was really deep; you think about it, there was no internet then. I came up to Eric, stuck out my hand, said "Hey, Mr. Dolphy. Told him my name, said I played saxophone and had started taking flute lessons. And he was holding his flute, and he just thrust it out at me and said, here, play something for me. I just took his flute. I'd just been playing a few months, I'm just learning key things you need to know about it. Eric Dolphy gave me a flute lesson for about 35-40 minutes. Showed me how to hold it. Taught me where to direct the air. Showed me how to roll it back and forth. Made me aware of the positions, and what to really listen for, it was amazing.

He was the most patient, generous person. He and John were like that. That's just how they were. I never asked John a question that he didn't answer for me. If he couldn't answer it, he'd point me in a direction so I could possibly find the answer for myself. He was a very analytical person. He always responded whether it was a musical question, or a question about something spiritual. He was deeply involved in a lot of serious things, in terms of the development of his own spirituality.

The evolution of that led to A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964), and the incredible things that are so much a part of his great legacy. It was a wonderful night, being there at that time, meeting Eric like that. They played the rest of the week, and then I saw him again later when I moved to New York. I went to a place called the Half Note that was a really famous place. And the guys who owned it pretty much let John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins play there anytime they wanted. They could play weeks on end if they wanted to, that's just how it was, it was open. If John wanted to come in and work out some music for a couple of weeks with the band, it was cool. They loved it, man. And people would be in there every night. It would be packed.

This particular night I went, and John was there with Elvin and McCoy and Jimmy Garrison, and Eric came in. I said, "Oh boy, this is really going to be special tonight. And it was, it was magnificent. When I saw them, and they looked at each other, because they were absolutely best friends, it was like, "Oh wow, here comes my man. They went off into stuff, they played so much music that night people were just jumping up and down, and applauding, and shouting. It was like electrical in there.

Shortly after that he left, Eric went to Europe and of course, passed away. Those moments are golden moments for me, because I got to see these two tremendous human beings and unique musicians who had this very forward view of what music could be and they were challenging themselves constantly to reveal something that they were experiencing. It changed the way I thought about everything, not only music, but about life. It's a great thing to be born at the right time.

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.

AAJ: Was Miles your link to Herbie Hancock?

BM: No, Sonny Rollins. One night I was going over to the Half Note again, going to hear Sonny this time. I walked across town, got there early enough, standing on the corner in front of the club. I look down to my left, I see Sonny carrying his horn, coming this way. I look to my right and there's Herbie. Both coming at the same time. Amazing. They both arrived there at the same time, I'm standing there. Sonny looks at Herbie, he looks at me, and says, "Herbie, do you know Bennie." One of those times, right place at the right time. I met my buddy, the rest is history, all them things we did together. A few years on down the line, after a lot of different gigs and situations in New York, Joe Henderson was beginning to make his own records and not so interested in being a sideman in Herbie's band. The opportunity came, and Buster Williams said, "Hey, you need to call Bennie Maupin."

First gig we did we went to Baltimore, played a place called the Left Banke Jazz Society. Baltimore to New York is approximately two or three hours. On the way down to Baltimore, Herbie had the music and basically rehearsed me there in the car. Without my horn, we just talked about it, about what's going on in the music. My focus was so good, I memorized his music before we got to Baltimore. Played everything from memory, shocked me, shocked him too. It was out first time playing together, but it didn't sound like it. It was with Johnny Coles, Buster [Williams], Garnet Brown, and Tootie [Heath]. Then band changed around a little more and ended up being Julian Priester, Eddie Henderson, Billy Hart, myself and Buster in that sextet thing that was probably one of the greatest musical adventures I've ever had up until the present moment. I think the greatest one I'm having is right now.

AAJ: What a great long run you had with those guys.

BM: Yeah, we played together in situations where it was all about the music. The sextet was one of the greatest bands I've ever been in. It might not have been commercially the most successful, in terms of music and musicality, and mutual respect and creativity, it was on the highest level. I'm glad we made the few recordings we did, but I never felt the recordings were in step with where we were musically. We always recorded and then went to develop the music later. The process should have been reversed, but it was just not meant to be.

The first night we played together I knew something magical was happening. We had our first concert in Seattle. We had no time to rehearse. Herbie had given the horn players the music, so the three of us, we looked through the music. We were in the hotel and started playing through the part. The sound from that very moment was just the most gorgeous sound. We just blended. There was nothing about it that was ever out of kilter. We got to a point where we breathed at the same time, we'd phrase the same way. It was three of us, but it was like one mind. The blend would be so incredible, I wouldn't know if I was playing, if Eddie was playing. We went to the club, and Billy and Buster and Herbie were there. We played the first set, we must've played and hour and a half, two hours. After it was over, people just went completely crazy. We went in the dressing room and we couldn't even talk to each other. It left everybody speechless.

AAJ: Even now there's an angry contingent within jazz that remains offended by the use of electronics. From your time with Miles, to the Headhunters, to your own projects, electronics have been a part of your sound. Was playing with electronic instruments ever an issue for you?

BM: As long as it's making sound, I don't care what it is. I was fascinated by it. When I met Patrick Gleason, I thought, "Damn, where is he from? He had all the wires, modules. He had this machine, the ARP2600, I'd never seen anything like that. He'd sit down with me sometimes and show me the difference between a saw wave, and sine wave, and it just opened up my head to what sound was all about. That was the beginning of a whole other education for me. Prior to that I'd always been concerned with the notes, chords, and scales. It didn't occur to me there are infinitely more sounds than there are notes. Once I saw that, I realized you could create music in a completely different way using sounds. It can be non-pitched sounds, or sounds no one's ever heard before. Patrick was in that world.

Regardless of what people said, I said, "You can say what you want about it. Guys were really harsh in their assessment of what it was, I think they were intimidated because it wasn't something they knew. They weren't close enough to it to embrace it, and a lot of guys close enough to embrace it didn't because they thought they were going to lose something. The thinking was so distorted, so convoluted. But I got to see it coming, and I got to meet the inventors of things that had never been invented before, and these guys were thinking about ways to manipulate sounds. They weren't disconnected from nature. That's where it is. These guys making sound like the ocean, and birds, and sounds that have never been heard before. I loved it. I knew things would not be the same. As good as it sounds when you put an acoustic element on top of it, I fell completely in love with it.

AAJ: You moved to LA in the early seventies?

BM: Yeah, Herbie and I, and Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Freddie Hubbard, there was an exodus from New York, we all moved here. Joe Henderson moved up to the Bay Area. And then eventually, the last hold out, Miles, he moved up to Malibu, after saying he would never do so.

AAJ: How did you come to study with Lyle Spud Murphy?

BM: I was introduced by one of my friends, a fellow Buddhist. He was studying composition and orchestration with Murphy, and kept telling me about him. Then I discovered the National Endowment for the Arts, and that they have a program that they will give you a grant to study privately with somebody if it's related to jazz or composition. I decided I wanted to study composition and orchestration with Spud Murphy. He was totally my mentor, giving me great information, showing me his system and how to utilize it. Taking me through, not only his written examples, but examples of his students. That connection with Spud Murphy changed my entire musical thinking forever.

AAJ: What year was that?

BM: 1978, or a little earlier. By then I was doing things I never thought I could do musically as a result of studying with him, and exploring his system. Getting that instant feedback from him was the most valuable thing. That's something that's missing today from a lot of young musicians, they don't get the feedback from guys older than they are, who've already accomplished a certain amount.

Consequently, they don't know what they're doing. They think they can do no wrong, and that they know everything. The longer you study music you find you know very little. Spud opened up the infinite possibilities of sound. His whole theory was based on the overtone series, which is a natural phenomenon occurring in nature, and in the world of physics. He not only guided me musically, he guided me spiritually as well. He didn't deal with style. That's not what he was interested in. His whole thing was showing me how to manipulate sound and how things can work, and what works best in certain situations, and what doesn't. He's a giant and I'm determined his memory will never be lost. That's why I dedicated my CD to him. Wherever I go, he goes.

AAJ: Now you're back with an all acoustic band.

BM: I'm back to square one, back to the acoustic group. People have forgotten what acoustic music sounds like. Everything is so electrified and manipulated electronically, so to hear the natural sound of the bass, or the natural sound of a percussion instrument, or the bass clarinet, or whatever it is, is a thing of great beauty.

AAJ: Penumbra comes off as a chamber music album.

BM: That was very deliberate on my part. In 2001, I received a composition grant from Chamber Music America. They're the largest music service organization in America. Every year they have a composition competition for musicians who do improvised music, and every year, composers who have ensembles receive these grants to produce concerts, to perform their music, and to compose their music and present it in public. In 2004, they called and invited me to bring my ensemble to New York to play at their 26th annual conference. I was able to play two nights at Sweet Basil's. The final concert for CMA was held in a church.

As a result of playing a performance in a church for CMA, I met people who present chamber music concerts. I'm doing what I can to promote myself as a chamber artist. I really feel if there's going to be a future for the music that I'm doing, it's going to be in environments where the emphasis is on the music. Promoters and presenters are very open to what I'm doing. I'm pursuing that, very assertively. Chamber Music America is very supportive of that. They want to have more interesting programming. I'm finding other ways to market myself, because you got to change the way you do things if you want something different to happen.

AAJ: It seems like you've distilled your larger band works, so with no loss of drama or funk, you've learned how translate it to small acoustic ensemble.

BM: That's what I did exactly. Pared it all down. Because of technology, sometimes things have gotten too thick. If you cover up all the space, then you have nothing. So I opened up the space, focused on the rhythm, and made everything very transparent. Took the guitar out of the music, and took the piano out of the music, except the very last piece, of course. I've discovered through experimentation and through experience how to imply the harmony, not necessarily state it. You still get the feeling that everything's complete. The rule applied that less is more. It takes time. I feel like I'm at a point in my life where I've had valuable experiences with incredible musicians, and now things are coming through me in a different way. I really am hopeful that I'll be able to present this music live with my ensemble.

AAJ: You dedicate a song to Walter Bishop, Jr.

BM: He was the first student of Spud Murphy I knew. Walter was always sharing stuff with me, that whole book he wrote on the cycle of fourths. He opened up my ears in a different way. I had to pay tribute to him. He used to live up on Larabee, around the corner from the Whiskey. I used to go up to his apartment; I would be up there for hours. He'd sit down at the piano and he might not get up. Our intention was to go have dinner with our wives, and sometimes they'd come up and say, you have to stop. He was a master teacher.

AAJ: The new version of "Neophillia" has a lot more pop than the famous version with Lee Morgan.

BM: I put it in a different time signature, and don't play the melody until the end. A new twist on an old number.

AAJ: "One for Dolphy" is improvised?

BM:One take, one time, that was it. I do have some very specific things I wanted in there.

AAJ: The title track is exotically beautiful.

BM: It goes back to the Equal Interval System, how to make little moves to create melodies, shift things around a little bit, have a little color, but to maintain a melodic integrity that enables you to follow.

AAJ: The alto flute is so rich.

BM:That's precisely why I use it. I practice on the C flute, but for playing live, I do like the low frequencies. It's from years and years of observing audiences when they hear a lower frequency coming from an instrument it tends to pull them in. You have to listen a little more attentively. High frequency instruments hit you so hard, after awhile the ear has a tendency to want to shut down. And that's what happens. I've been able to observe very carefully how people tend to get very tired of listening to high frequencies a lot. The attention span is not what it used to be when people weren't so driven by what they see.

Television changed everything. People stopped listening and started looking. When that happened we lost out as musicians. That's another reason why I want to play my music in concert and chamber music settings because quite often those settings are very beautiful to look at. That means a lot, if you can present yourself in a setting that's attractive and people will pay attention to what they see, you can really capture them with your music. I have a very visual sense that I work from and I definitely see images with my music, and I want to present my music with dance and movement, at some point. That's how I want people to experience it, so that it totally embraces them in every way possible.

Selected Discography

Bennie Maupin Ensemble, Penumbra (Cryptogramophone, 2006)
Darek Oles, Like a Dream (Cryptogramophne, 2004)
Headhunters, Evolution Revolution (Basin Street, 2003)
George Cables, Shared Secrets (Muse FX, 2002)
Mike Clark, Actual Proof (PGI, 2000)
Bennie Maupin, Driving While Black (Intuition, 1998)
Headhunters, Return of the Headhunters (Verve, 1998)
Meat Beat Manifesto, Actual Sounds + Vocals (Nothing, 1998)
Meshell Ndegeocello, Peace Beyond Passion (Maverick, 1996)
Herbie Hancock, Dis is da Drum (Mercury, 1993)
Herbie Hancock, Feets Don't Fail Me Now (Columbia, 1979)
Bennie Maupin, Moonscapes (Mercury, 1978)
Lennie White, Big City (Nemperor, 1977)
Bennie Maupin, Slow Traffic to the Right (Mercury, 1976)
Headhunters, Survival of the Fittest (Arista, 1975)
Eddie Henderson, Sunburst (Blue Note, 1975)
Sonny Rollins, Nucleus (Milestone, 1975)
Bennie Maupin, The Jewel in the Lotus (ECM, 1974)
Herbie Hancock, Thrust (Columbia/Legacy, 1974)
Miles Davis, Big Fun (Columbia/Legacy, 1974)
Herbie Hancock, Head Hunters (Columbia/Legacy, 1973)
Woody Shaw, Song of Songs (OJC, 1972)
Miles Davis, On the Corner (Columbia/Legacy, 1972)
Herbie Hancock, Sextant (Columbia/Legacy, 1972)
Herbie Hancock, Crossing (Warner Bros., 1971)
Marion Browne, Afternoon of a Georgia Faun (ECM, 1970)
Miles Davis, Bitches Brew (Columbia/Legacy, 1969)
Lee Morgan, Taru (Blue Note, 1968)
McCoy Tyner, Tender Moments (Blue Note, 1967)
Andrew Hill, One for One (Blue Note, 1965)

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