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Album Review

Here is an interesting and not paradoxical combination: Bennie Maupin on Cryptogramophone. Maupin hasn't been heard from as a leader since 1998 on his fine, funky, Driving While Black. That doesn't mean he hasn't been busy; he's played on records by Chick Corea, the Headhunters, George Cables, Victor Bailey, David Arnay, Mike Clark, and others. He was also part of DJ and producer Carl Craig's revolutionary Detroit Experiment. Penumbra is all his, however, and aside from Jewel in the Lotus, it may be the finest outing in his catalog as a leader. Maupin plays his usual array of instruments — tenor, soprano, flute, bass clarinet, and piano. He is joined by the excellent bassist Darek Oleszkiewicz (also known as "Oles"), drummer Michael Stephans, and Darryl "Munyungo" Jackson on percussion. Rhythm is the key here, as all of these 14 compositions are rhythmically propelled. Maupin's compositional frame has been informed by all of his teachers, most notably John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Yusef Lateef. Modal motifs can be heard in most pieces, and Maupin's playing around and through the rhythm makes for infectious and quietly dramatic listening. Restraint is a key element of all the tracks on this set. Tunes don't "swing" per se, but they are excellent examples of the deep interplay of the ensemble. The contrapuntal dialogue between Maupin and "Oles" on "Neophilia," "Message to Prez," and "The 12th Day," on which Maupin plays bass clarinet and tenor, respectively, is almost symbiotic. The skittish soprano workout on "See the Positive" also involves a fine contrapuntal exchange between the two, with a funky groove underlying the entire proceeding. The angular "Level Three" begins in abstraction but ever transforms itself into melodic composition and improvisational fire all within three minutes. There are two solo pieces on the set, "Blinkers," for tenor, and "One for Dolphy," for bass clarinet, that are beautifully understated and refined. The duet "Mirror Image" for flute and bowed bass is a soft, lyrical wonder. A true standout here is "Walter Bishop Jr.," where the open drone mode dictates an intense Eastern-tinged melodic workout from Maupin's tenor. As it picks up steam, the ensemble gels, but space and air are given free rein. Everywhere the tension builds, albeit slowly, but when the piece reaches its bluesy end — reminiscent of Lateef's work on Eastern Sounds — it whispers to a close letting the air out of the bag gently, surely, and melodically. This is a magical, labyrinthine outing for Maupin. His band is top-flight intuitive, practicing a kind of restraint that never forsakes lyric for mere energy and dynamic. This takes not only discipline, but taste, and Maupin and band are positively beatific in their subtlety.

Penumbra, The Bennie Maupin Ensemble
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