Rob Mullins STORYTELLER album information page.
Rob Mullins Entertainment 2008
RADIO FEATURE: KJAZZ 88.1 FM Radio picks: Escher's Etude, Prime Time, In The Sun
Rob Mullins-piano, drums, keyboards, composer, producer, main performer.
Larry Antonino-acoustic bass.
CD Release March 8 2008. Amazon digital release May 8 2008.
iTunes digital release June 1 2008
Available through CD Baby Amazon and iTunes
REVIEW by SCOTT YANOW
Rob Mullins has experienced a great deal during his productive life. Born in Oklahoma and raised in Denver, he started on piano when he was 14 and was already playing professionally two years later. Since then he has become an important force in Southern California and around the world as a musician, bandleader, composer and educator. Along the way he has worked with Branford Marsalis, Kirk Whalum, Ronnie Laws, the late Spike Robinson, the Crusaders (filling Joe Sample's spot for three years), the Rippingtons, Diane Schuur, Dave Grusin and Hubert Laws in addition to his own groups. He had previously led 16 albums and blurred the artificial boundary between “traditional” and “contemporary” jazz, R&B, and funk sounding like himself in all idioms.
Even with all of that in his resume, Rob Mullins had never recorded an album like STORYTELLER before. While there are hints of funk and sections of straightahead jazz, many of the selections display the strong influence of Western classical music, the originals utilize fresh and new chord changes, and the focus throughout is on Mullins’ acoustic piano. Some of the pieces are quite introspective while others feature the high energy that one normally associates with Rob Mullins. One hears another different side of the pianist, as his sensitivity and emotions come to the surface, along with his usual sense of fun.
Storyteller utilizes a two-man trio. In addition to piano, Mullins is heard on drums and hand percussion. Originally a drummer, Mullins had permanently switched to piano by the time he reached college although he did play some drums on ‘Samba’ from his important 1984 project Soulscape. “It was a big challenge for me after many years off, getting my chops back up to playing level in 2007. But I figured that it would be as fast a process for me to learn to play well enough to play on the new album (because I knew exactly what I wanted the drum parts to be) than if I hired someone and had to write out all of the charts and teach them the style that I wanted on each tune.”
On acoustic bass is Larry Antonino who Mullins played with regularly when they were members of Ronnie Laws’ band in the 1990s. Normally heard on electric bass, Antonino displays a great deal of warmth on the upright bass during his interplay with the pianist which sometimes borders on the telepathic.
The opening original composition “Storyteller” combines together an unusual set of genres. Parts of it feel like Russian classical music, there is a definite Middle Eastern influence not heard before on Rob Mullins’ recordings, and the chords and bass lines are quite modern, yet it also borrows a portion from one of his songs originally released on Soulscape for the conclusion.
“Escher’s Etude” is a musical depiction of the famous graphic artist M.C. Escher’s drawing “The Staircase.” “That drawing shows stairways that go up and down simultaneously. That is how I feel the melody line is in this piece, with the angularity of it moving against the bass line.” “Escher’s Etude” has a one-chord vamp that alternates with a complex bridge that hints at John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Since the bridge reappears in unpredictable spots, it keeps listeners guessing.
“Prime Time” has a catchy melody but also a unique bass line and unusual chord changes. It is the type of upbeat tune that draws listeners in.
“Sleep Sweet” is an emotional lullaby performed by Mullins as a piano solo. It sounds very much like a classical piece in the style of Beethoven, particularly in the patterns played by his left hand. While the first half of the piece sticks to the melody, during the second half, Mullins improvises over the chords without altering the piece’s mood. The pianist had never recorded an example of improvising in the classical idiom before.
“Back In The Day,” a struttin’ trio number, is a nostalgic look by Rob Mullins at the 1980s and 90s, the music scene of the time and the changes that have taken place since then. “In this piece, I pay tribute to all of the people who are still out there from then who are still listening to my music. It is a fresh twist on the old me.”
“Run No More” is a cinematic piece in which one can imagine a forest, along with elements of danger, pain, frustration, suspense and ultimately relief and exhaustion. This intriguing work begins with a mysterious piano riff, the tension builds throughout the dramatic performance and the suspense does not let up until near its conclusion when it resolves into a sense of relief.
“Tears For America” is an improvisation for piano and bass. It uses four bars from “Run No More” but is otherwise quite spontaneous. “Larry uses a really unique bass that has an additional high C string, I’d never seen one like that before, and we play off of each other. I wanted to capture some of the conflict, darkness, despair and drama that our country is currently going through.” The music is a little reminiscent of the type of records put out by ECM in the 1980s, featuring such players as pianists Keith Jarrett and Bobo Stenson and bassists Eberhard Weber and Palle Danielson. The thoughtful interplay by Mullins and Antonino is a bit mournful, fitting the song’s title.
In contrast, “In The Sun” is a joyful piece with a celebratory theme, an infectious piano pattern, some high energy playing, and a very rare Rob Mullins drum solo which is taken entirely on the snare drum.
“Scarborough” was originally a centuries-old folk song before Simon & Garfunkle added lyrics and made it into a pop standard. Inspired by Hubert Laws’ adaptation of classical themes on his CTI albums, Mullins put the piece in 9/4 time, changed the key, modulated to a different key in the second chorus, and added an entirely new section for the solos.
“The Smile” is dedicated to the look on Mona Lisa’s face in the famous Leonard Da Vinci painting. It has a thoughtful melody, some picturesque improvising, and becomes darker as it evolves before becoming tender at the end. Much of Mullins’ playing on this piece is out-of-tempo and sounds as if he is thinking aloud, revealing some of his deepest thoughts in his music.
Storyteller concludes with “Family,” a nostalgic and somewhat wistful solo piano improvisation that musically depicts the good and the bad sides of relationships.
In recent times, Rob Mullins has played gigs in Southern California, run his music school and publishing company, and toured Russia in early 2007 with flutist Hubert Laws. As of this writing, he is returning to Russia to perform his own music.
“With STORYTELLER, I’m reaching out to a much broader audience, particularly young classical students who might not know about the amazing world of jazz. Pianistically, it was the greatest challenge of my career to play these songs for the music is hard.”
STORYTELLER is one of Rob Mullins’ most intriguing, heartfelt and successful recordings in a career full of accomplishments. One looks forward to him taking this colorful and unique music out into the world.
Scott Yanow, author of nine jazz books including Swing, Bebop, Trumpet Kings, Jazz On Film and Jazz On Record 1917-76
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