Bennie Maupin made his name in Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock’s fusion bands, then progressed into avant-funk; on Early Reflections, the flute/saxophone/clar-inet player splits that continuum wide open. Recorded in Warsaw with a Polish quartet, it’s acoustic post-bop jazz of rich lyricism, both subtle and audaciously gorgeous.
Maupin’s compositions adapt easily to this approach. It’s his playing, however, that sets the tone: The disc opens with him delicately building a tenor-sax figure, pianist Michal Tokaj and bassist Michal Baranski in equally gentle pursuit. Elsewhere, he reshapes “The Jewel in the Lotus,” the difficult title track from his classic 1974 album. While Baranski and drummer Lukasz Zyta play a sprightly romp, Maupin coaxes wistful phrases from his soprano, sustaining them until they fairly float away—transforming the original’s eeriness into sweet reverie. Tokaj does as much as Maupin to define the music here—significantly, Early Reflections is Maupin’s first album since Jewel on which the acoustic piano is a major voice. Without it, the pensive, serpentine tenor lines on the duet “Ours Again” would drift into rudderless free jazz; with Tokaj’s luminous tone and complex harmonies, it’s more like a romance. The pianist also brings emotional depth to the Latin shuffle “Escondido,” and imbues his own ballad “Tears” with great tenderness.
Flashes of avant-garde do appear, mostly in the shortest tracks (as if an obligation, to be dispatched quickly); the exception is the nine-minute closer, “Spirits of the Tatras.” Here, abstraction slowly gives way to a lyrical resolution, helped along by Hania Chowaniec-Rybka’s expressive vocals and Maupin’s pacific flute. It’s a full reversal of the reedist’s usual challenging-with-a-touch-of-pretty tack, yet Reflections never feels like a reinvention—merely an artist detouring into a different aspect of himself. That detour just happens to yield something extraordinary.