As an alumnus of Miles Davis’ groundbreaking fusion album entitled Bitches Brew, as well as a co-founder of Herbie Hancock’s expeditionary band The Headhunters, Bennie Maupin has been at the forefront of fusion jazz for more than 37 years. Bennie’s seemingly haunting style of play on the bass clarinet has been the stuff of legends throughout his musical career. At various times during his post Davis and Hancock years, Maupin’s solo career blossomed with a superb display of skill on a variety of woodwinds, including the flute and saxophone; however, he never quite hit the mainstream as a leader. For the most part since leaving The Headhunters, Maupin has definitely been under the radar screen, leaving a devoted array of fans wondering where is and what happened to Bennie Maupin. But that may change with the release of a brand new CD entitled Penumbra on the Cryptogramophone Record Label. Although it has been eight years since his last release and many more since the by-gone days of Bitches Brew and The Headhunters, Bennie’s specialized voice can still make a positive individualized statement.
Although Bennie Maupin is known primarily as a bass clarinet player, he does have additional skill sets. With the release of Penumbra, Bennie has once again jumped into the forefront with a wide and varied display of woodwind and piano playing ability. On a tune entitled "Neophilia 2006", which just happens to be the opening track, Maupin lays the foundation for 14 fusion jazz songs that brings any number of thought processes to bear. His re-incarnation of the bass clarinet as well as the use of other instruments make this CD somewhat of an anomaly in approach, when considering just how often we are exposed to Maupin’s multi-layered talents. What is just as compelling is Bennie’s selection of sidemen. To assist him throughout his creative best, Bennie brought along bassist Darek "Oles" Oleszkiewicz, drummer Michael Stephens and percussionist Daryl Munyungo Jackson to help fill in the blanks. When examining the specialized essence of this recording, as well as the title track Penumbra, Maupin is at his most brilliant best when he shines through on the bass clarinet. Although the ebb and flow of his instruments are readily apparent, it is the bass clarinet that seems to drive Maupin’s fanciful delight. When pushed, Bennie’s melodic intrusions on the flute, saxophone and acoustic piano are brilliantly offset by percussive rhythms and ever-changing mosaic grooves. On one track entitled "Level Three", Bennie carries listeners on an interstellar journey of synthesized dimensions, which are augmented by Darek Oleszkiewicz’s bass lines and an on again off again melody. In fact, that track is very reminiscent of his efforts during the 1970s and ‘80s. To say the least, Bennie Maupin’s jump back into the realm of music that brought him from there to here has not lost any prominence whatsoever.
Penumbra is an album that brings the nuances of post-bop, hard-bop and fusion into the mainstream without any apologies from a jazz alchemist such as Bennie Maupin. The improvisational nature of Maupin’s work conjures up remnants of Bitches Brew; however, do not confuse the two. The voice you hear is Bennie’s throughout 14 illustrious tracks of fusion brilliance. The road that has led Bennie Maupin down the path of excellence as well as over the hill and through the woods is the stuff of legends. For those of you who know the story well, this dynamic artist is definitely an enigma and an icon in the annals of fusion jazz. In my mind, this latest release entitled Penumbra speaks volumes for a career that is just as esoteric and terrestrial as the music played by Bennie Maupin.