Throughout the 1960s, Bennie Maupin was a sound and not a name. As a sideman to saxophonist Marion Brown and trumpeter Miles Davis, Maupin, a multireedist, added lush flourishes to what became some of the most heralded music in jazz. In 1969, he was a key player on Davis’ landmark Bitches Brew, an album so impactful that it’s been credited for shifting jazz to heavier funk and rock terrain. Maupin stuck with Davis throughout the early ‘70s as a featured guest on A Tribute to Jack Johnson, On The Corner and Big Fun. But it’s his work with keyboardist Herbie Hancock that gained the most traction: As a member of his Mwandishi band, Maupin’s sound swelled even further. It was somewhat buried in the mix of Davis’ work, but Hancock’s lean sound—which was brooding and more spiritual with lush instrumentation—allowed Maupin to cut through the din. Naturally, given the pace and tenor of the music, one’s ear gravitated to the flute and bass clarinet he played so elegantly.
Coming off a star turn on Hancock’s most successful album, Head Hunters, Maupin released his solo debut album, The Jewel In The Lotus, in 1974. Perhaps influenced by the meditative aspects of Hancock’s early ‘70s run, Maupin’s debut was full of billowing brass and strings that didn’t feel like jazz in the traditional sense. Instead, across tracks like “Ensenda,” “Winds of Change” and “Past + Present = Future,” The Jewel was almost an ambient work, best consumed in the dead of night or just as the pitch-black sky fades to a lighter shade of blue.
Full of Buddhist chants, The Jewel was meant to be a soothing balm less adhered to notes and structure. The idea, he once told Down Beat, was to create art that eluded to melody without being tethered to it. By building arrangements that emphasized an atmospheric sound and envisioned some form of space travel, The Jewel In The Lotus makes you feel like you’re drifting toward a great unknown far beyond this planet. Some 47 years later, it’s a masterpiece that’s still somewhat underrated in broader discussions about jazz music. It's one of my all-time favorite musical discoveries, a classic of any era and genre.