Sunday, March 21, 2010

Bennie Maupin on Mercury

Multi-reed player Bennie Maupin was already a veteran of the Marion Brown, Jimmy Owens, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Lee Morgan and Horace Silver bands when he was tapped to be part of Miles Davis’ magnanimous Bitches Brew in 1969.

He recorded often with the newly electric (and frequently recorded) Miles during this time as well as recording a number of records with Miles’ drummer at the time, Jack DeJohnette. While still a part of Lee Morgan’s outfit (Maupin can be heard on Morgan’s final recordings), Maupin became a pivotal part of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band in 1970.

Maupin recorded with Hancock’s various ground-breaking electric configurations throughout the early 70s (Mwandishi, Crossings, Sextant, Headhunters, Thrust and Death Wish) before finally issuing his very first solo album, The Jewel in the Lotus (ECM, 1974), a beautiful and beguiling set of atmospheric tonal textures and ambient free forms that sound nothing like what he was doing elsewhere at the time and everything that made him so transfixing as an improviser and sound collagist.

The reed player, who had by this point made a sinewy signature sound on the otherwise otherworldly bass clarinet, could be heard more familiarly on trumpeter and fellow Hancock-band mate Eddie Henderson’s equally electric – in all senses of the word – discs from the period (Realization, Inside Out, Sunburst). Maupin then got super famous by joining with Hancock’s former backing band, now calling themselves The Headhunters, who issued the first and, really, only noteworthy of their funk-jazz classics, Survival of the Fittest (Arista, 1975).

Of course, Maupin continued playing with Herbie Hancock throughout the rest of the 1970s, benefitting some of the keyboardist’s most popular electric forays, including Flood, Man Child, Secrets, V.S.O.P., Sunlight, Feets Don’t Fail Me Now, Direct Step and Mr. Hands.

But it wasn’t until 1977 that Bennie Maupin’s solo career was kick started with his first major-label release, Slow Traffic To The Right. The album appeared – surprisingly - on the Mercury label, whose pop success at the time with Bachman Turner Overdrive, Rush, Thin Lizzy and 10CC was matched by the country music glories of Tom T. Hall and The Statler Brothers, of all people. OK, they were doing well with the Ohio Players and Bohannon at the time too. Still, Mercury was not much of a jazz showplace at the time. But jazz really didn’t have much of a home anywhere at this point in the music. Even CTI was a thing of the past by 1977. But at the time the Mercury label was home to such forgotten sixties jazz renegades as Jimmy Smith, Chico Hamilton and Gabor Szabo. Charles Earland was there at the time too. It doesn’t change the significance or importance of Bennie Maupin’s music.

Slow Traffic to the Right (Mercury, 1977): The first of Bennie Maupin’s only two Mercury albums during the late 1970s is the extraordinarily fine Slow Traffic to the Right. Despite the jokey cover and a questionable title, it is a tremendous landmark of seventies fusion – and one of the finest albums jazz produced during this time. Surprisingly never issued on CD, this Bennie Maupin album was produced and supported by synthesizer specialist Pat Gleeson, who writes an encouraging and remarkably accurate liner note when he says “This is it – the long awaited statement by America’s premier contemporary reed player, Bennie Maupin. He contributed powerfully to the development of jazz in the historic Bitches Brew sessions with Miles Davis. He continues to shape American music through his association with Herbie Hancock and Headhunters. And now, supported by some of the finest players in the world, Bennie Maupin makes his own statement.” Indeed. Maupin is supported beautifully here by the Hancock-influenced Patrice Rushen or the underrated Onaje Allen Gumbs on keyboards, fellow Headhunter Blackbird McKnight on guitar (who solos on “You Know The Deal”), Ralph Armstrong or Paul Jackson on bass, James Levi on drums, Mwandishi-mate Eddie Henderson (who solos on “Quasar”) and Craig Kilby on mostly backgrounded horns and Nathan Rubin, who helms the strings.

Kicking off with “It Remains to Be Seen,” a piece of L.A.-styled, Headhunters-like funk, we’re on a playing field of higher-than-average jazz-fusion values. Led by Maupin soloing sensually on saxello, “It Remains to Be Seen” is a funk classic, with Patrice Rushen beautifully anchoring the piece, and in a well-constructed solo, on acoustic piano. “Water Torture,” perhaps the album’s single greatest moment, shows Bennie Maupin at his very best. Soloing on tenor sax, Maupin overdubs his signature bass-clarinet rhythms and allows for Ms. Rushen’s gorgeous electric pianisms. Something should be said for the remarkably intoxicating and simple horn arrangements here, courtesy of Onaje Allen Gumbs, and strings, arranged by Nathan Rubin. It’s a most remarkable performance that renders his electrified sax on the mid-tempo “You Know the Deal” somewhat more flaccidly than it would be heard otherwise if programmed differently (though Ralph Armstrong’s electrified bass here gives plenty enough to work with for any sampler looking for a ready groove to exploit).

“Eternal Flame,” with Maupin on soprano sax, Gumb’s brief “Lament,” with the leader featured on bass clarinet in a piano duet with the composer, and the lovely space funk of “Quasar” (which Maupin first unleashed on Herbie Hancock’s 1972 album Crossings) with Maupin on soprano and flutes, harks back to the sound and style of The Jewel in the Lotus, with more ambient textures and filmic pastures. While these aren’t necessarily the album’s highlights, they are significant musical statements nonetheless. One senses these are the pieces that are most aligned with Maupin’s own musical sensibilities. You have to wonder why the guy never scored more films. It seems that many films would welcome this sort of music.

One could wish for far more music here. Sadly, there’s only about 33 minutes of music on this album. And certainly the programming could have been better. But what’s here is magical, magisterial and, at times, ethereal, and worth any investment, particularly if seventies jazz is your thing.

Moonscapes (Mercury, 1978): The second of Bennie Maupin’s two Mercury albums is decidedly less successful than the first. But it’s not without the attendant charms that go along with any of Maupin’s always magnificent performances. The album, more interesting than anything either Tom Scott or Gary Bartz were turning out at the time, does seem more of a contractual obligation sort of outing rather than something meaningful. Unfortunately, it’s peopled more by LA session players than the previous album – something of a mistake that probably could not be avoided. Bobby Lyle mans most of the keyboards (Onaje Allen Gumbs plays electric piano on “Just Give It Some Time” and “Sansho Shima”), Mike (“Maniac”) Sembello is on guitars, Abraham Laboriel is on bass, fellow Headhunter Harvey Mason is on drums and Mingo Lewis is on percussion. Pat Gleeson, who is producing again, is credited with “synthesizer programming,” but he probably plays more keyboards here than he’s credited with.

The program isn’t terribly memorable. But it is worthwhile, and its brevity would certainly seem to make it easy to compile on a single CD with Maupin’s previous Slow Traffic to the Right.

“Nightwatch,” which opens the album, is decent late-70s fusion funk, with Maupin soloing well on tenor sax, aided by Bobby Lyle’s keyboard stylings (probably Pat Gleeson’s too). As an aside, “Nightwatch” was issued as the b-side to Maupin’s 45-rpm only single release of Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” in 1978. “A Promise Kept,” comes closest to what one would hope for from a Maupin album. It’s not perfect, and the melody is hardly enticing. But Maupin solos quite nicely on soprano, supports himself nicely with an overdubbed bass-clarinet ostinato and Lyle (?) weaves in some nice keyboard prowess underneath.

Most of the far-too-brief album is, at best, a fair assessment of Maupin’s capabilities. “Farewell to Rahsaan” is a tribute to multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who died shortly before this album’s release on December 5, 1977. This simple, yet evocative piece finds Maupin sticking to the soprano sax, accompanied only by electric piano, Beverly Bellows’ harp and some light percussion. It seems unfocused and unfinished, but, again, not without interest. Gumb’s very pop-oriented “Just Give It Some Time” aims for Grover Washington, Jr.’s chart success with little accomplishment (it never got a 45 release to my knowledge either). Maupin’s “Sansho Shima,” which is reprised from Herbie Hancock’s 1976 album Secrets, is a decent showing for the leader on soprano sax, sparked by the spiky interjections from guitarist Sembello.

“Anua” is surprisingly lifeless, despite Maupin’s many horns and Lyle’s keyboard overdubs. It’s fair-to-middling background music. But either the melody or the chord changes just weren’t enough to make Maupin’s somewhat interesting improvisations worth much. The chock-a-block rhythm doesn’t help. The brief “Crystals” finds Maupin stating his initial intentions on tenor before a strange fade out that reveals the pointlessness of the whole affair.

One really has to wonder what went wrong here. Bennie Maupin probably had much more music within him. But, for some reason, it doesn’t quite come through on Moonscapes. You have to assume that not too many people picked up on it either. There certainly wasn’t much hit-worthy material to be heard here. It was almost Bennie Maupin’s way of saying he either didn’t care or wasn’t much of a leader.

Indeed, while he stuck it out with Herbie Hancock for another few years, Bennie Maupin sort of disappeared from the music scene for quite some time. He was first spotted on Herbie Hancock’s own Mercury outing Dis Is Da Drum (1995) some years later, then he turned up on The Return of the Headhunters (1997), his own Driving While Black (1998, with Patrick Gleeson) and The Detroit Experiment (2003). Then he finally came out with some more notable solo statements on the Cyrptogramophone label, the excellent Penumbra (2006 – recorded in 2003) and the ethereal Early Reflections (2008 – recorded in 2007).

Bennie Maupin should be more available to jazz listeners. But his Mercury recordings will appeal to those that want to hear more of the great multi-instrumentalist in his jazz-fusion prime.

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