Jazz -funk fans must have been taken aback when multi-instrumentalist and composer Bennie Maupin's Jewel in the Lotus was released by Manfred Eicher's ECM imprint in 1974. For starters, it sounded nothing like Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters recording, which had been released the year before to massive sales and of which Maupin had been such an integral part. Head Hunters has remained one of the most reliable sales entries in Columbia's jazz catalog into the 21st century. By contrast, Jewel in the Lotus sounded like an avant-garde jazz record, but it stood outside that hard-line camp, too, because of its open and purposeful melodies that favored composition and structured improvising over free blowing. Jazz after 1970 began to move in so many directions simultaneously it must have felt like it was tearing itself apart rather than giving birth to so many new and exciting musics. Considered carefully, however, Jewel in the Lotus was the perfect realization of the skills acquired by Maupin from the mid-'60s on, when he had played in bands led by Marion Brown, McCoy Tyner, and Pharoah Sanders. He'd even recorded an album under his own name in 1967 entitled Almanac. Maupin was first heard by the masses, however, when he played bass clarinet on the landmark Bitches Brew session by Miles Davis, and as a member of Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi and Sextant groups. He was the lone holdover when Hancock formed the Headhunters, who blasted their way onto FM radio and into the ears of fans who also dug Earth, Wind & Fire and P-Funk.
Maupin's band for this set contained close friends and musical allies encountered over the years. For starters, fellow Headhunter Bill Summers and Hancock himself are on this date, with drummer Billy Hart and versatile electric and acoustic bassist Buster Williams, who were both members of the earlier Hancock group. The other drummer on the set (there was one in the right and one in the left channel), the criminally under-recorded Frederick Waits, was a former skin man for Motown and John Lee Hooker who Maupin knew from his hometown in Detroit. Charles Sullivan, who plays trumpet on two cuts, was someone Maupin encountered in his travels in New York and jammed with. Jewel in the Lotus is not exactly a "lost" jazz classic. ECM kept it in print for many years on vinyl, but 2007 saw its first official CD release. That said, it has been traded widely on the Internet and vinyl copies of any edition command major dollars in record stores and in online auctions. There is good reason for this: it is a classic of 1970s spiritual jazz, and as much as any recording on Strata East or Black Jazz, Maupin's ECM offering is a wonder of arrangement and composition with gorgeous ensemble play, long yet sparse passages, space, and genuine strangeness. Maupin plays all of his reeds and flute in addition to glockenspiel here; Summers' percussion effects include a water-filled garbage can. The two drummers swirling around in different channels don't ever play the same thing, but counter and complement one another. And Hancock plays some of the most truly Spartan and lyrically modal piano in his career here.
From the six seconds of silence that introduce the percussive beginnings of "Ensenada," with Williams' acoustic bass on a pulse line, Waits' marimba inside a tight scale, Summers' bells, and Hancock's ghostly piano, you know you are on a journey. It doesn't matter whether that music is jazz, classical, or avant-garde. It's a journey into sound and silence. When Maupin on flute fronts the rest of the group as they enter with long-held notes and Hart begins flitting around the top with sticks playing the rims of his tom-toms, the magic is already transpiring. The music is somewhere in the twilight, perhaps better yet in the first emerging pink of a new day, where everything seems transparent because it is partially hidden from view. The ringing ostinato Hancock introduces about halfway through in the middle register is rhythmic, not melodic. The melody is so restrained it only engages one note at a time, held almost interminably but seductively. The beginning of "Mappo," by contrast, is almost startling: as both drummers move through and around the front line, Williams bows his bass at the lower end of its register, and Hancock begins to dramatically play his bottom register keys, Maupin's saxophone enters -- masculine, definitive, and pronounced -- before it gives way to space and his flute. Rhythms and themes shift and more notes are introduced, but they are still skeletally structured. Themes give way to the return of others, and everything becomes circular. The entire track -- regardless of the frenetic but taut percussion and the intense bowing of Williams -- remains in the realm of absolute crystalline beauty.
The elemental concerns of journey and transformation are paramount on the first half of the recording, all the way through the brief ostinato tune "Past + Present = Future." The primordial moment has been revisited; one listens in the moment and heads toward the sum of the two parts, which becomes almost uncomfortably clear with the introduction of electric piano sounds (think of the score from Tarkovsky's Solaris), slow deep modal lines from Williams, and Maupin's muscular tenor -- but these two give way to brave new sound worlds in the title track. The fact that the vibe remains on the border between light and dark (and nowhere more so than with the bass clarinet lines and flutes in "Winds of Change") doesn't make it a difficult record to listen to. Quite the opposite. Maupin's harmonic explorations may be unfamiliar, even downright strange at times, but they are inviting. The beckon gently; they never assault. Edges are rounded and seductive. "Song for Tracie Dixon Summers" is one of the most haunting and beautiful modal ballads ever written in the modernist jazz literature. The interplay between Williams, Summers, Maupin's saxophone, and Hancock is symbiotic. Sometimes these moments are so dramatic that what the listener hears is the sound of a new world opening up, so that by the time "Past Is Past" closes the set, with its contrapuntal piano and open-key melody, the listener has been taken completely out of the day-to-day, out of the moment and into a new one, where time is formless, free-floating, a stream. Coming back into everyday life with its business can be a bit jarring.
The true worth of Jewel in the Lotus is that perhaps no other bandleader at the time could bring together players from such different backgrounds and relationships to his own musical development and make them interact with one another with material that is scored so closely and whose dynamics and tensions are so pronounced and steady. Maupin was so utterly accomplished as a composer as well as a soloist by this time it comes as a shock that he hadn't been making records regularly -- and even more so that he has only recorded very sporadically as a leader since (only a handful of recordings bear his name on top but they are all as fine as they are different from one another). Jewel in the Lotus is a true jazz classic because only jazz was big enough in the early '70s to hold music like this, with all its seeming paradoxes, and recognize it as its own. This album sounds as timeless and adventurous in the present as the day it was released. Amen.