Bennie Maupin’s first album in eight years is called Penumbra, and there are just so many reasons why this title is completely perfect.
Firstly, there’s that sound: the bass clarinet; the smoky, murky, deep and dark bass clarinet; the sound of furtive movements in the shadows, subterranean, lurking.
And then there’s the unmistakable sense that, finally, with this album, Maupin is emerging from the shadows cast by his past mentors and teachers, emerging as a heavyweight in his own right, as a leader and a pioneer. It’s thirty seven years since he added his brooding darkness to Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, almost as long since he helped define the sound of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. Since then he’s recorded rarely as a leader: a few albums in the ‘70s, 1998’s Driving While Black—and now Penumbra.
Finally, it seems, Maupin is summoning up the gravitas we’ve hoped for all these years—assuming his rightful position as the pre-eminent bass clarinettist in contemporary jazz, stepping out of the shadow cast by his old teacher, Eric Dolphy. The album’s “One for Eric Dolphy” reads almost like a passing of the baton, with Maupin exploring the expressive possibilities of the instrument—from sweet lyricism to raging over-blowing—and emerging as the foremost practitioner of his art.
And, of course, there are the compositions, the way they lurk in a penumbral region, a hinterland, skirting the avant-garde with one foot firmly in the funk. The opener, “Neophilia”, is as perfect a groove as you’re likely to hear all year; “The 12th Day” is a subtly restrained slice of super-heavy rhythm; “Tapping Things” has an irresistible, heads-down, chase-your-tail momentum; while “Walter Bishop Jr.”—as the name suggests—is a slow-burning modal treat, summoning up the dark intensity of the Black Jazz label’s iconic ‘70s output by Bishop and others.
On all these tracks, the band is as tight and meaty as a side of frozen beef: Michael Stephens’ drums, light and unobtrusive, suggesting shades of rhythms rather than all-out breaks; Daryl Munyungo Jackson’s congas giving a head-shaking urgency; and, underneath it all, Darek Oleszkiewicz’s deep, deeper, deepest double-bass hits like a glove in the guts.
And all of these are interspersed with brief solo ruminations and skittering, avant-garde explorations, cut adrift from the rhythms, the sound of a mind stretching out free. These are messages from the interzone, a summation, signposts. Past and future meeting here and now.
Yeah, it sounds like Bennie Maupin is emerging from the shadows. But let’s hope he doesn’t come right out into the glare. We need him exactly where he is, right there, digging around in the penumbra.