The return of Bennie Maupin to somewhat regular recording, beginning with his first Cryptogramophone release Penumbra in 2006, is one of jazz music’s more welcome stories of the past few years. Maupin, widely known for his work with Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock through the late 1960s and well into the 1970s, is a strong tenor saxophonist, bass clarinetist, and also plays soprano sax and flute. In addition, he is a top-notch composer, and his 1975 ECM release The Jewel In the Lotus, has long been considered a classic recording (ECM just reissued the album for the first time on CD last year).
Early Reflections continues the Maupin renaissance, both echoing the earlier release and providing some new elements as well.
This time around, Maupin has surrounded himself with a group of young Polish musicians who prove to be a very able and sympathetic group of bandmates. If Penumbra was a chamber jazz album, Early Reflections is an even smaller, more refined chamber. Yet it feels as spacious as the sky over the Silesian city of Katowice, location of the Academy of Music where all four of Maupin’s Polish band studied in a program that emphasizes both classical and jazz performance and composition.
It is telling that the music on Early Reflections runs the gamut from fairly traditional post-bop jazz, through more classically-oriented compositions and improvisations, to the farther end of avant-garde free playing where Maupin staked a claim back in the ‘70s. The opening “Within Reach” is one of four improvisational pieces that the group undertakes, all of which prove to be interesting and satisfying musical journeys. These brief interludes are interspersed between longer , composed numbers that tend to be of a more reflective nature.
“Escondido” features Maupin’s signature bass clarinet work, and he demonstrates his skills at creating an atmosphere with the instrument. His rhythmic ostinato lays the groundwork for a samba that in some ways reminiscent of the dynamic of Tomasz Stanko’s band. Again, Maupin remains very low-key, yet his playing never lacks energy. His playing now is full of the wisdom of using space as an essential element and focusing one’s energy like a single flame rather than expounding loud, fiery passages.
On the other hand, a certain lightness is at times brought to bear on the music that may not have been evident earlier in Maupin’s career. Nowhere can this be better heard than on the group’s reworking of Maupin’s classic piece “The Jewel In the Lotus.” The song’s simple melodic statement was difficult to follow on the original 1975 recording, in part because of the slow, deliberate, out of time way it was delivered. That gave the album its sense of timelessness and spirituality, but on the version from Early Reflections the quicker ¾ time allows the tune to come to the fore. The solo work of pianist Michal Tokaj and of Maupin himself on soprano sax takes in the more meditative aspect of the original, but the ultimate effect is both more traditional and at the same time, bristling with spiritual energy. The piece is at the center of this album, radiating out in both directions to create resonance.
There’s only one composition (other than the improvisations) that is composed by someone other than Maupin. Tokaj’s “Tears” is delicate and features Maupin’s fully rounded alto flute. The title tracks features some beautiful bass playing by Michal Baranski and drummer Lkasz Zyta manages to drive the other musicians forward while at the same time commenting on what they are playing throughout the CD. “Prophet’s Motifs,” the penultimate track, even manages to evolve into a funky groove that recalls Maupin’s heyday with Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters band.
Maupin features vocalist Hania Chowaniec-Rybka on two tracks, “ATMA” and the final piece, “Spirits of the Tatras.” Both harken back to the late-‘60s heyday of both spiritual content in jazz and Afrocentric concepts (both musical and theatrical) presented by avant- garde groups like Art Ensemble of Chicago.
This is reportedly the first time that Rybka attempted wordless vocal jazz improvisation, and her work on “ATMA” is sometimes reminiscent of similar work by Flora Purim or Chicagoan Grazyna Auguscik. According to the notes sent with the CD, Maupin was influenced by the folk music of the Silesian culture during his time in Katowice, and it is in the themes and melodies sung by Chowaniec-Rybka that this is most clearly audible to the average listener.
Very fortunately, Maupin can be heard and felt as a presence on a great many recordings by other artists, even if his recorded work as a leader is in short supply. Early Reflections adds another chapter to Maupin’s considerable story, and it is a chapter that will no doubt prove to be one of the strongest in an already strong musical story.