Bennie Maupin
"The Jewel in the Lotus"

The Jewel in the Lotus

Review by Brad Walseth

One of my favorite reissues that I have come across in quite some time, I admit that I was unfamiliar with the original 1974 ECM recording when I put this CD on my car stereo recently while traveling. It never came off during the whole trip.

Maupin, of course, is best known for his distinctive bass clarinet work on Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew,” “Tribute to Jack Johnson” and more, and his membership in Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, but on this recording, his first as a bandleader, he shows a visionary outlook that incorporates layered compositions, open atmospherics and free form improvisation that truly lives up to its spiritual title.

Hancock is here on piano and some electric piano and simply sounds great, while the solid Buster Williams mans the bass chair and offers some excellent and subtle work. Meanwhile, the drums and percussion are handled by Billy Hart, Frederick Waits and Bill Summers. Somewhat surprisingly, the three drummers remain tasteful and thankfully refrain from turning the occasion into a bash-fest. Charles Sullivan adds trumpet on two tunes, while Maupin plays reeds and glockenspiel and adds some droning vocals. Overall, the music could compare with Mahavishnu Orchestra or early Weather Report, but with a unique voice of its own that seems more paced and centered and less frantic.

This is music that flows as naturally as flowers unfolding or clouds moving overhead. Opener “Ensenada” could be a musical river, while “Mappo” is mysterious and potent. Maupin shows such a beautiful touch on the flute here and the spaces add to the sense of the anticpation. Hancock’s piano solo here is a wonderful exercise in free playing at its best. “Excursion” builds like a storm and is terrifying in a good sense, before “Past+Present=Future” returns us to peace with a message that seems to say that storms are a part of nature too and will pass.

The centerpiece title track is 10 minutes of sonic that seem to suggest Maupin had absorbed some of Miles’ attitude toward music making, without his former leader’s need to funk it up. The rapid right/left panning on Hancock’s electric piano is a bit distracting, but probably seemed like a good idea at the time.

The rest of the album continues to mine a similar meditative vein and is equally enjoyable with the shimmering “Past is Past” providing a haunting outro. ECM should be applauded for bringing this overlooked gem back to the attention of the public.

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