Bennie Maupin: The Rebirth Of
Bennie Maupin says he’s only learned a few phrases in Polish. But he’s discovered firsthand that the language of jazz can transcend all boundaries. And his new recording, Early Reflections (Cryptogramophone), recorded in Warsaw with a band of Polish musicians, is a definitive display of what can happen when improvisation becomes the ultimate form of communication.
“I actually met these guys two years before we went into the studio,” says the trimly bearded Maupin over a cappuccino in a San Fernando Valley Starbucks. “I knew they could play, even before we got together, because I heard their influences—Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, Herbie Hancock, and more.”
Like most players in the post-modern, venue-limited jazz world of the 21st century, the veteran multi-instrumentalist and bass clarinet wizard—perhaps best known for his extraordinary work with Miles Davis (the albums Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, Big Fun, On the Corner), Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band and the Headhunters, and recordings with Chick Corea, Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner and others—depends heavily upon European tours to fill out his performance schedule. And when Cryptogramophone Records came up with an opportunity to do a second recording (his first for the label, Penumbra, was released in 2006), Maupin decided to record with Polish musicians he had met on one of his many overseas tours. “The way the music business is today,” he explains, “you have to have someplace where you can present whatever it is that you want to present—without having to tailor-make your music to accommodate a venue. That can be a problem, and that’s why I took the steps I did to record with this band. The young guys in Europe take the music very seriously. They study, they go back and listen to everybody, they’re very serious about the evolution of the music. And they do all kinds of gigs, playing every imaginable style.”
All of which sounds very much like a résumé of Maupin’s own lifetime approach to the music and to his art. And the primary theme that flows through our long conversation—illuminated by Maupin’s thoughtful, soft-spoken insights, noisily accompanied by the steaming sounds of the nearby espresso bar—is his dedication to the creative curiosity that has always been part and parcel of his musical identity.
Improvisation is, of course, fundamentally linked to curiosity. And free improvisation creates an environment even more conducive to the unfettered exploration of new ideas. Which is exactly what Maupin tried to achieve with Early Reflections. “This is a very organic approach that I used,” he explains. “I had a pretty good idea of what it was I wanted to create. Mainly I just wanted to have the looseness that we were feeling naturally while we were playing live. We had the tune tunes, the composed pieces, and it’s obvious that’s what they are. But I also added three or four things that were pretty much collective and spontaneous. I had some planned rhythmic material. But mostly I tried to keep the pre-planned stuff to a minimum. The guys are such great improvisers I wanted people to hear music just as it happened in the moment.”
It is “in the moment” passages that permeate the CD, at times filled with dense but floating contemporary harmonies, at other times—the climactic “Spirits of the Tatras” is a good example—juxtaposing startling aural excursions against unexpected lyricism. The longest track on the album, The Jewel in the Lotus, revisits the atmospheric title work from Maupin’s groundbreaking 1974 ECM album of the same name (which became available for the first time on CD in November 2007).
Maupin supported the April release of Early Reflections with a brief tour reaching from Los Angeles’ Catalina Bar & Grill to Manhattan’s Jazz Standard. Initially, he had planned to bring his entire lineup of Polish musicians to the United States for the engagements. But prior commitments only allowed the pianist, Michal Tokaj, and the vocalist, Hania Chowaniec-Rybka, to make the trip. “I was really hoping to bring everybody,” he says. “But Michal and Hania, combined with my regular guys, give a good perspective on what we did in the album.”
As it turns out, Maupin will barely have time to wrap up the necessary promotional activities for Early Reflections before he moves on to his next project—one that is near and dear to his heart. “It’s a tribute to Eric Dolphy,” he says with a smile. “It’ll be on ECM, and we’ll do it in the fall. It’ll feature flutist James Newton, who, like me, was very influenced by Eric, with Darek Oles on bass, Billy Hart on drums and Jay Hoggard on vibes. I asked Herbie to play on something, too, since he recorded with Eric back in the ’60s.”
The decision to do a Dolphy tribute album was an easy one for Maupin. Born in Detroit in 1937, he was coming of age in the late ’50s, at a time when Dolphy, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman were beginning to revolutionize the jazz woodwind family. Maupin met them all under different circumstances, and is quick to acknowledge the influence each had upon his musical growth. “I loved Eric from the first time I ever heard him,” he says. “What I really liked was that I could hear and recognize the influence of Charlie Parker in his playing, but at the same time there was a different thing that he was doing. He was totally himself on the flute and the bass clarinet, and it was only on the alto that you could hear some Parker. But he was completely unlike so many guys from that time who were so totally immersed in Bird that they couldn’t escape that influence.”
Dolphy once gave him an impromptu flute lesson at a Detroit club, and he met Rollins shortly after the iconic tenor saxophonist returned to action from the sabbatical that triggered his recording The Bridge. Although Maupin grew up listening to what he describes as the “older generation” of great Detroit jazz players—Kenny Burrell, Tommy Flanagan, Elvin and Thad Jones, among others—the city was still a hotbed of activity while he was in his teens. He recalls playing at a jam session when he was 18 with Joe Henderson, Barry Harris, Charles McPherson and John Coltrane. And it was Coltrane, he says, who encouraged him to go to New York. “Interestingly, it was right after I became aware of what Ornette was doing,” says Maupin. “And I could hear some shades of Charlie Parker in [Ornette], too, but it was also a very different thing, especially in his tunes, the melodic kind of things that he and Don Cherry were playing. So it happened that shortly after that Coltrane came to Detroit and I got to talk to him. And what did he talk to me about more than anything else? Ornette. He told me that the week before, he’d gone to this New York club called the Jazz Gallery, where he’d heard Ornette doing all these different things.
“And then he said, ‘Look, even if you don’t stay there, you have to go to New York so you can hear what guys your age, and guys a little bit older than you, are doing. Find out what’s going on.’”
Curiously, however, what really brought Maupin to the Big Apple was the Four Tops. It was the summer of 1962, and he had just completed a semester at the Detroit Institute of Musical Arts, when he received an offer to do a summer tour in the back-up band for the Detroit vocal quartet. “At that time,” he says, “their presentation was more of a jazz kind of thing than later, when it became the R&B thing they became famous for. And they had some really modern things they were doing. We played up in the Borscht Belt, we played in New Jersey and a bunch of joints I’d never seen. And then, finally, they brought me to New York.”
Maupin’s initial game plan was to spend a few weeks in the city, then head back to Detroit to pursue a music degree via a scholarship he had received at Wayne State University. All that changed the night he went to one of the era’s premier jazz clubs, the Five Spot. “I heard Thelonious Monk,” he says. “And that did it. I sat there all night. I looked around the club and everybody I knew from record covers and jazz magazines, they were all there. So I said, ‘I’m going to do this.’ The idea was daunting when I actually thought about how I was going to do it, but I thought, OK, I’m just going to have to figure it out.”
Maupin called his parents and told them he was going to stay. Then he went out and found a day job to support his music activities. It was the same work he had done in Detroit, and surely one of the oddest day jobs any jazz musician has ever chosen to do: taking care of laboratory research animals. “It paid the bills,” he chuckles. “And I was so fortunate to be there, in New York, at that time, when the clubs were active, when guys like Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp and Wayne Shorter were coming up. When I heard them, I knew what I had to do.”
Maupin began to do it by practicing four to five hours every day. Bassist Don Moore lived across the hall, and various drummers dropped by from time to time to enliven the rehearsals. But he soon discovered that his early years in Detroit had provided assets that a lot of jazz players his age did not have. “I knew a lot of tunes, for one thing,” he explains. “You didn’t work in Detroit if you couldn’t play standard tunes, know the chord changes, and play gutbucket, too. I could sight read, and I’d also studied classical saxophone. So it worked out pretty well. I had my day gig with the lab animals, then I had my night gigs, which were usually on the weekends—Brooklyn, Mt. Vernon, wherever. And then I might go to a jam session with whoever was around—and there were some very good guys around.”
Although Maupin arrived in New York with his tenor saxophone, B-flat clarinet and flute, it took a year or two for him to move on to the instrument that would gain him the highest visibility—the bass clarinet. “There was a painter around then,” he says, “a guy named Marzette Watts, who was also a musician. He had penetrated into the artistic circles of New York and Paris, and he was a big fan of Jackson Pollock. He was also doing some concerts and playing and composing. On one of his trips to Paris, he had bought a new bass clarinet. So he had an older horn that he wanted to sell, and he asked me to come look at it. I went to his house, played on it a little bit. He said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘I like it.’ And he said, ‘OK, $50.’ So I bought it. And I still have it.”
Maupin had heard and been impressed by Dolphy’s bass clarinet playing, but the instrument, despite its rich timbres and memorable Dolphy associations, had relatively low jazz credibility at the time. Maupin loved its low tones and the varied sounds of its different registers, but he didn’t “bring it out in public” for a while, electing to first work out all the kinks at home. He finally debuted it around 1966, when he was playing with McCoy Tyner. And when Miles Davis came into the lower East Side club Slugs one night to hear a Tyner set, Maupin’s career as a preeminent jazz bass clarinetist received an instant jump start. Davis asked him to play on the album he was just beginning to record—Bitches Brew. “I didn’t know what to expect from him,” says Maupin. “The first morning I was pretty nervous. I was there with Miles Davis on one side and Wayne Shorter on the other, and I’m thinking, Wow, what’s going to happen? What’s going to come at me? But I was pleasantly surprised to see how kind Miles was, and how interested he was in helping the musicians—especially guys from my generation. He had a short, one-on-one conversation with every musician who was in there, every day. Might only be a little bit, but it would be something—often something funny, because he had a great sense of humor.
“I think Miles really liked the contrast between the bass clarinet and the trumpet. So a lot of what I did was just mirror in certain ways what he was playing. And I think he liked the fact that I was comfortable enough with him to just do that. He once said to me, ‘I don’t know what it is that you’re playing. But I like it.’ And it seemed as though the wilder it got, the more he liked it.”
Davis wasn’t the only one who liked Maupin’s bass clarinet work. The long, post-Davis run that he had with Herbie Hancock—in a band that also included Eddie Henderson, Julian Priester, Billy Hart and Buster Williams—produced some of the most irresistible sounds of the ’70s.
It also produced a friendship based on creative and spiritual interests that persists into the present. Like Hancock and Wayne Shorter, Maupin has been a Buddhist since the early ’70s. And, similarly, he moved to Los Angeles, also in the early ’70s, when Hancock and Shorter—along with Joe Zawinul, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson and others—were part of a significant creative exodus to the Left Coast. “Quite a few of us had started coming to California around that time,” Maupin explains. “And we realized that it was possible to have a completely different lifestyle. You could come out here, have great weather, and live in a house instead of an apartment.
“I met a woman here in Southern California. She had a couple of kids, and I had a son from an earlier relationship, so we got married. And that did it. I moved out, although—like a lot of guys—I did keep my apartment in New York for about a year,” he says. Maupin has been divorced and remarried in the years since he came west, but he still lives in the hilly Altadena area where he first settled when he came out in the ’70s.
When he arrived, he found the lifestyle to his liking, but he was less enthusiastic about the creative environment. “A lot of my friends were doing session work,” he says, “and people told me I should do it, since I played several different instruments. But it was so dry and there was such a lack of creativity—not a lack of musicianship, certainly. These guys can play. But I already had an idea of where I wanted to go musically. And then I also started to recognize that L.A. is so political when it comes to that kind of stuff, that I just didn’t want to do it. New York spoiled me. Because New York was all about, ‘Hey, what do you do?’ I mean, if you could do it, they’d call you. If you couldn’t, they didn’t.”
Maupin has nonetheless managed to carve a creative career for himself over the past few decades that has not been defined by any single place or any single kind of music. He travels everywhere—“Europe, the U.S., Japan, you name it”—has written an extended composition on a grant from Chamber Music America, plans to do more large-scale works, and spends Sundays leading the rehearsals of a 24-piece ensemble, the Ikeda Kings Orchestra, for SGI-USA, the Buddhist organization that includes Hancock, Shorter and Maupin among its membership.
Maupin’s overview of where he stands at this point in his life—in the latter years of his 60s—is characteristically youthful, upbeat and optimistic. “I feel as though I’m making progress,” he says. “This recording, Early Reflections, is definitely a step that I feel very good about. I got to produce it, compose my music, everything. My playing is feeling good, and I’m anxious to go play a lot more.”
“Bottom line: I feel that this is a good time for me,” Maupin concludes. “Not only musically, but in my personal life, too. I’m doing things that are creating some value, hopefully. And I’m enjoying every minute of it.”
Originally published in June 2008