Jim Mullen - 11 x 3 (Flamingo West)
If this CD is your first exposure to Jim Mullen’s guitar playing and you’re wondering what such a hip-sounding trio is doing recording in Glasgow studio for a new Scottish label, rather than one of New York City’s more prestigious venues under, say, the Blue Note banner where this music so obviously belongs, don’t worry. You’re not alone.
Over the past thirty years or so, more often than not, newcomers to Mullen have assumed that, like their heroes whose influences he has assimilated into a style at once readily recognisable as distinctively Mullenesque and yet firmly in the tradition, he must be American. It certainly wouldn’t be the first person who, having caught a Mullen gig, engaged the guitarist in conversation only to be taken aback at being answered in a clear and, despite long years resident in London, unmistakable Glaswegian brogue.
Indeed, during their mid 1970s New York sojourn, audiences turning up to hear Mullen and his long-time partner in jazz/funk, the wonderful and, sadly, recently deceased saxophonist Dick Morrissey, were invariably astonished to learn that the band leaders were a couple of imports. The fact that those audiences regularly included musicians of the calibre of the Brecker Brothers, David Sanborn and others among the Big Apple’s first call session players, all eager to check out and sit in with the band, only emphasises Mullen and Morrissey’s authority as jazz musicians.
Like most Scottish musicians of his generation, Mullen’s first gigs were at church hall dances, having acquired his first guitar at the age of thirteen and gone public within a year. By his mid teens, by this time a committed jazz fan and working with American singer Billy Daniels and Glasgow band leader Andy Park’s ambitious, Gil Evans-influenced ten-piece, Mullen was playing double bass, an instrument that played a big part in fashioning his idiosyncratic guitar skills. A left-hander, Mullen didn’t bother to change the bass strings round. He played it right-handed and when he switched back to guitar, after watching his bass’s neck and body part company while he tried to hold it together and finish a gig, it felt natural to continue playing right-handed with his thumb like one idol – Wes Montgomery – while leading a guitar-vibes-bass trio like another idol, Tal Farlow.
Mullen’s thumb has been called many things over the years, including “bionic.” This certainly applied when, having moved to London in 1968, he was playing tear-it-up jazz/rock fusion with organist and now acid jazz god Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express in the early 1970s. As Auger and the musicians Mullen played with subsequently, including flautist Herbie Mann, soul/funk groups Kokomo and the Average White Band, and the peerless Morrissey-Mullen, concentrated more on feel and groove-based music, however, the directness and passion in Mullen’s playing made that thumb, for this listener, the best blues singer that Glasgow has ever produced.
For evidence of those blues singing qualities you need look no further than the ballads Isn’t It A Pity and For Heaven’s Sake here. On both melodies there’s a vocal warmth to Mullen’s phrasing that suggests he’s going over the song lyrics to himself as he plays notes that convey much more than mere words can say. Then having established a mood of such bereft regret, he goes on to expand on it with solos so poignant and yet simultaneously uplifting in their keen, on the edge articulation. Because as this recording also amply demonstrates, there’s an eagerness about Mullen’s playing that makes everything he plays sound fresh and exciting.
The line-up and concept here – guitar, organ and drums playing well-known, occasionally expected songs – may hark back to the 1960s heyday of Hammond organ pilots such as Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott et al, but the energy and sense of swing are unmistakably current. Mullen has for long struck this listener as being capable of creating excitement out of the most commonplace, even mundane melody and his colleagues in this trio, organist James Watson and drummer Matt Skelton, are clearly young men after his own heart.
In these hands, I Wanna Be Like You, hackneyed to death by every cabaret turn in the land but a tune whose Jungle Book origins bring to mind Mullen’s enthusiasm for and almost encyclopaedic knowledge of cartoon music, develops an urban heat and urgency more redolent of a cop car chase than a children’s feature. Similarly, very few musicians I can think of other than Mullen could take It’s Impossible from the pipe and slippers comfort of Perry Como’s famous 1970s hit version and transform it into the jumping, soulful burn-up that you hear here. That he does so is a tribute not just to Mullen’s own highly evolved ability to turn on the soloing style at will but also to Skelton’s springy drumming and Watson’s talent for combining those tricky dual Hammond roles of providing filthy, itchy-fingered chords and commentaries manually while maintaining a swinging bottom end momentum with the bass pedals.
Elsewhere you’ll find all the other facets and Mullenisms that make Mullen such an inspirational, although far from over-recorded, figure. There’s the crisp, clear phrasing of Embraceable You and As Time Goes By, the unshowy and almost casual-seeming way he has of shaping a melody with the most sensitive and creative rhythm guitar interventions, and the habit of inserting quotes from other tunes, a common enough trait in jazz but one that Mullen has turned into a witty and often crucially directive art. (He once even managed to squeeze a quote from Miles Davis’s Jean-Pierre into a thirty second Yellow Pages television commercial, but that’s another story.)
I won’t detail every hidden gem here – that might spoil the fun – but I will highlight one on Mal Waldron’s gorgeous Soul Eyes, a favourite from the Morrissey-Mullen band book, which with the saxophonist’s untimely death has become an unintentional tribute. After a particularly steamy solo from Watson, who is no slouch at creative appropriation himself, Mullen enters in his inimitable style and somehow manages to make You and the Night and the Music a central plank in his brilliantly spontaneous discourse. But then, brilliant spontaneity, forged from a lifetime’s dedication to studying, absorbing and most of all, playing great music, is what Mullen watchers have come to expect from one of jazz’s true originals. And brilliant spontaneity is what you get here – by the bucketload.