Live at Club Rhapsody, Okinawa
Reedist Bennie Maupin's been a valuable member of several jazz ensembles over the years, notably one of Lee Morgan's last bands and Herbie Hancock's standout acoustic and electric units during the '70s. But nothing he's previously done suggested that his union with bassist John B. Williams, formerly part of Arsenio Hall's posse, would yield anything as remotely enjoyable or musically invigorating as Live at Club Rhapsody, Okinawa, recorded in Japan almost two years ago. The 11 compositions are mostly cliche-free, with unison sections that sound like the musicians were really seeking fresh ways to play the music rather than just running through chord changes. The featured solos by Maupin and keyboardist Makoto Kuriya offer listeners much more than weary improvisers darting through familiar progressions or rote phrases. As the primary soloist Maupin demonstrates considerable flexibility and range on bass clarinet, offering full, rich lower- and upper-register solos without wavering or distorting his tone on such songs as "Neophilia." His soprano sax playing isn't quite as rewarding, but his tenor compensates with a bluesy fervor and soulfulness. His playful exchanges with Williams on "Fair Game" and the booming opening stanza and subsequent follow-up statements on "Message to Prez" are outstanding.
Williams was seldom given a chance to do more than mug on cue during the Arsenio days, but his skills are nicely spotlighted on this date. He's much more the aggressor in the rhythm section than drummer Cecil Monroe, although Monroe doesn't so much defer to the bassist as work off Williams' strong, elegantly articulated patterns. The miking and engineering also deserve high praise. It's one of the rare times on a live recording where interplay between bass and drums can be clearly heard on every selection, and Kuriya's keyboard tinkling doesn't become muffled or washed out whenever the entire group's performing. Kuriya's a decent uptempo player, but less memorable or exciting on ballads and slower numbers. Still, it is the strength of Bennie Maupin and resilience and energy of John B. Williams that makes this a delightful disc.