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Lovers of this music with a sense of its history will be aware that there have been markers of excellence laid down along the way. This is not about commercial success but a deeper and infinitely more subtle thing. A powerful vibe that seeps into the DNA of the music, acknowledged by all who have the ears to hear it. Bennie Maupin has laid down a number of such markers in his long career.

I have been listening to Bennie Maupin for most of my life but I suppose that it was Lee Morgan‘s ‘Live at the lighthouse’ album (Blue Note) that made me pay particular attention. The album had been cut at Hermosa Beach (Howard Rumsey’s ‘Lighthouse’) in July 1970. If I were to single out two tracks from that album they would be ‘Peyote’ which Bennie wrote and ‘Beehive’ by Harold Maybern. The former is a wonderful piece of lyrical writing with highly melodic hooks and subtle shifts in intensity which pull you ever deeper into the tune. The latter is a fiery burner that immediately tells you that Bennie is gazing at limitless improvisational horizons and flying free of known constraints.

Later that year he played so memorably on Miles ‘Bitches Brew’ (Columbia) and his bass clarinet on that album continued the groundbreaking work of Eric Dolphy. During the next decade he alternated between Herbie Hancock (‘Mwandishi’, ‘Headhunters’) and Miles (‘A Tribute to Jack Johnson’, ‘On The Corner’, ‘Big Fun’); while cutting his own first album as leader in 1974. ‘The Jewel in the Lotus’ (ECM) has been one of the most sought after albums in Jazz until its re-issue a few years ago. After that came ‘Slow Traffic to the Right’, ‘Moonscapes’, ‘Driving While Black on Intuition’, ‘Penumbra’ and ‘Early Reflections’. As a sideman he has played with the who’s who of the classic Jazz world including Horace Sliver and McCoy Tyner.

Immediately I heard about the Massey University concert featuring Dick Oatts and Bennie Maupin I asked the organisers if I could have a few words with the visitors. No Jazz writer would want to overlook an opportunity like this. I had been quite ill that week but no illness was going to stand in the way of this day.

Late Sunday morning on the day of the concert we met at a coffee bar near the Massey campus and while we ate I began a series of short conversations that ended up lasting until midnight. Dick is a friendly man with a big smile and a hint of the raconteur about him. Bennie is a little quieter, but you soon sense that he is taking everything in and he reveals an inner warmth as he gets to know you.

I had been burning to ask Bennie about his uncanny abilities as a multi reeds and winds player. “Why are there so few that master a range of horns” I asked? Like Dolphy before him Bennie has been extraordinarily proficient on all of his horns. When he was 18 years of age Eric Dolphy had handed him his flute saying, “show me how you play”. He then gave him an impromptu 40 minute flute lesson. What Bennie learned about technique in that short lesson was never forgotten.

He looked at me and said with deep reverence, “Dolphy was the greatest. Being a multi reeds and winds player is the path I was encouraged to take by those around me and in particular by my teacher Buddy Collette. There is no magic bullet, just very hard work. If you don’t maintain the maximum effort on each horn you quickly lose your edge”.

Because I loved ‘ Live at the Lighthouse ‘ so much I asked him about Harold Maybern’s ‘Beehive’. It is an incendiary tune bursting at the seams with raw energy. “Oh that tune was very hard the first time we played it”, said Bennie. “It was the velocity, but by the time we got to the ‘Lighthouse’, we were on top of it. That gig was recorded live and so we understood, no second takes. We could not even check the recording afterwards”. What Bennie, Jymie Merritt, Mickey Roker, Harold Maybern and Lee Morgan fused together was an energy infused miracle.

As we didn’t have much time before rehearsals we discussed his recordings as leader. ‘The Jewel in the Lotus’ (ECM 1974) is a gentle but profound masterpiece. The layering of instruments creates a soundscape that has space and incredible depth. In my mind this is not a fusion album but a manifesto of the spiritual mores of the 1970’s Jazz world. As with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, Bennie follows Nichiren Buddhism. An unpretentious spirituality quietly informs his work.

I learned that a Big Band version of the title track ‘The Jewel in the Lotus’ (Maupin), was to be played that night. They would also be playing ‘Water Torture’ (Maupin). This was transcribed and orchestrated by Mike Booth for the performance and Mike would be one of the few Kiwi musicians who could take on such a task in the limited timeframe. The result was praiseworthy and with Bennie on board it soared.

Dick Oatts (alto sax and other reeds) will be well-known to anyone who has followed the incarnations of the famous Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band (Village Vanguard Orchestra). He is a mainstay of that orchestra and as I was soon to learn, his writing skills were honed to perfection. He has been to Auckland before and his return engagement was received with great enthusiasm. His extensive recordings as leader culminated with ‘Two Hearts’ (2009). This man is really across his music and his phenomenal chops, his focus and his writing skills all revealed themselves as the day proceeded.

Phil Broadhurst and the musicians then asked if I would like to attend the rehearsal. No second invitation needed.

What I witnessed was a highly informative music lesson. It is commonplace in Jazz for musicians who have never collaborated before to be thrown together. This is what Jazz musicians do. In these situations a musicians reading skills, memory and concentration are tested. When backing an iconic figure like Bennie Maupin or a gifted altoist like Dick Oatts, the risks intensify. This is when less experienced band members have to step up and the stretch is often a big one. The local musicians met that challenge on Sunday. In Jazz all higher learning stems from such experiences.

The program had been split into two segments. The first half was a sextet featuring Phil Broadhurst (piano), Frank Gibson Jnr (drums), Alberto Santorelli (bass), Neil Watson (guitar) – Bennie Maupin and Dick Oatts (saxophones). The second half was the Auckland Jazz Orchestra; first on their own and then with the visitors. Trudy Lile was featuring on Jazz Flute in a beautiful piece titled ‘Sogur Fjord’; a flute and orchestra chart which Mike Booth had brought back from Scandinavia some years ago.

When Bennie heard Trudy play he informed her. You will play up front with us in the first half as well. He then sat down and proceeded to write some parts for her. This writing on the fly was a feature of the afternoon and Dick Oatts was forever adjusting and rewriting charts to suit the instrumentation. This is a valuable skill that experienced professionals possess. In rehearsing the band Bennie would quietly raise his hand and ask for a subtle change. This was music under constant revision and aiming for the best outcome – an ideal improvisational vehicle.

Trudy had looked stunned for the briefest second and then she had focussed. She gave it everything and performed brilliantly.

The concert began at 8pm and it all came together as planned. The sextet plus Trudy played ‘Water Torture’ (Maupin), a reharmonisation of ‘Just Friends’ (‘Just Us’ Oatts) and several more numbers culminating with an impromptu performance of ‘Straight No Chaser’ (Monk). The second segment began with the AJO and Trudy, who were soon joined by Bennie and Dick.

If someone asked me today to choose my ten Desert Island tracks I would reel off nine and then add….oh and give me that Massey Concert AJO/Maupin version of ‘The Jewel and the Lotus’. To say that I enjoyed the tune would be a gross understatement.

The last number was ‘Naima’ and Dick Oatts was superb. He wove in all of the elements of the tune and then took it to new places. This was a display of passion and chops second to none. The performances on the night were all great and the AJO had raised the bar yet again.

Later as I ran Bennie and Dick back to their hotel I could not help but think. This has been the best of days.

I dedicate this post to Dr Cranshaw and to Kay, who kicked my ass and convinced me that I would find the strength to go.

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