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Bennie Maupin - Penumbra

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Artist: Bennie Maupin

Album: Penumbra

Label: Cryptogramophone

Review date: May. 1, 2006

Woodwind specialist Bennie Maupin knows the price of sideman status from direct experience. Despite sizeable chops and a voluminous professional vita accrued over four decades, his dates as a leader are still countable on two hands. His most prestigious tenures were with the early electric bands of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock; a deeper survey of the period finds him working with a host other leading jazz lights like Lee Morgan, Woody Shaw and Andrew Hill. For whatever reason, all this activity never parlayed into steady sessions of his own. Penumbra heralds his first work at the wheel since 1998’s Driving While Black, and Maupin scales back the overt fusion and hip-hop elements of that outing in favor of a more purely acoustic and organic sound.

“Neophilia 2006” gets the set off to an auspicious start. Bassist Darek Oleskiewicz plucks a springy ostinato out of a textured percussive preface while drummers Michael Stephens and Daryl Munyungo Jackson braid a breathing backdrop of supple breakbeats on brushes and hand percussion, respectively. Maupin’s bass clarinet threads through the self-replicating groove, trailing raspy tonal streams that accentuate the incessancy of the rhythm. The disc’s 13 other tracks vacillate between ethno-infused rhythmic investigations like the title piece and more groove-oriented numbers like “See the Positive” and the aptly-named “Tapping Things,” where Oleskiwicz once again pumps some heavy pizzicato funk into the proceedings.

Maupin’s modal roots rear up regularly through soulful improvisations on his battery of reeds and winds, which also include tenor and soprano saxophones and alto flute. There’s even a stretch of polished piano on the closing ballad, “Equal Justice.” Several interstitial pieces, like the elegant solo tenor “Blinkers” and “Mirror Image” for limpid soprano and arco bass, sound more like transitory exercises than completely finished pieces. Maupin balances these sketches with tracks like “Message to Prez” where grainy bass clarinet tones coalesce into a playful repeating motif voiced across another aerated shuffle beat of bells, cymbals and palpitating bass. Elsewhere he pays obvious tribute to departed colleagues on pieces like the meditative “Walter Bishop, Jr.” and moody “One for Eric Dolphy.” A relaxed and productive temperament pervades the entire album, making it easy to take Stephans’ observation in the liners that “we no longer play the music; the music plays us” as tenable gospel.

By Derek Taylor

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