by Mark Saleski
Back in the dark ages (read: before the Internet) I spent a fair amount of time searching out new music by paying very close attention to the listings of my local public and classical radio stations. On any given week night there might be broadcasts of solo works, string quartets, and all manner of chamber ensemble and full-on orchestral madness.
That was how I discovered David Ocker. Specifically, Ocker’s solo bass clarinet version of the 4th movement of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F. My cassette recording of that performance has a lot of miles on it—the bass clarinet (so full of character!) being put through those winding passages was something that just made my ears light up.
I honestly hadn’t thought of Ocker for many years. That is, until listening to the first moments of Penumbra by the Bennie Maupin Ensemble. Maupin’s bass clarinet brought back all of the reasons why my ears are so attracted to solo works—the textures and sounds made by the instrument, performer, and instrument parts (clacking valves, for example) provide a kind of music all their own.
Of course, Penumbra is not a solo performance. Maupin’s very flexible group does manage to focus so tightly on certain ideas that the musical conceptions make the listener forget about the existence of a group. A neat (if unintentional) trick.
Penumbra begins with “Neophilia 2006.” After an opening clarinet phrase, drums (Michael Stephans) and percussion (Daryl Munyungo Jackson) frame a groove that is soon joined by the bass (Darek “Oles” Oleskiewicz) and then the leader’s clarinet. Maupin breaks away from the full band ostinato to improvise over the top of the proceedings. The tune ends with a reverse construction—bass clarinet exiting … then bass … and finally percussion.
When the grooves peak on this album, it’s very reminiscent of those Miles and Herbie Hancock records that Maupin was a part of. If you think of albums like Bitches Brew and On The Corner, but with less “statistical density” (as Zappa liked to say), then you’re headed in the right direction.
But … while there are many examples of the collective groove here (“Message to Prez”, “See The Positive”, and the title track, with Maupin switching to alto flute), Penumbra offers several more atmospheric pieces. “Level Three” starts off with a pensive and slightly disjointed improv which then wants to be a blues…but leans toward a free(er) jazz freakout … but finally: blues. “Blinkers” is a breathy workout for solo tenor. “Mirror Image” finds Maupin and bassist Oleskiewicz engaging in a short duet for sax and bowed bass. My favorite of these is “One For Eric Dolphy”, full of breath and horn and valve and passion.
Penumbra ends with the gorgeous blues of “Equal Justice.” Maupin has moved over to piano, lending a stately feel to an airy composition that gives “Oles” plenty of solo space. It’s a nice touch and an unexpected style change to close things out.
Now, if I can just figure out which box I put that David Ocker tape in.