by Ian Mann
November 07, 2023
An excellent performance by Mullen and the trio that featured some superb playing from all three protagonists.
Jim Mullen Organ Trio, Kidderminster Jazz Club, St. Ambrose Parish Centre, Kidderminster, Worcs. 03/11/2023
Jim Mullen – guitar, Jim Watson – organ, Tristan Maillot – drums
Born in Glasgow in 1945 Jim Mullen is one of the living legends of British music. He first began to make a name for himself in the 1970s playing with Cream lyricist Pete Brown’s Piblokto! group and later joined organist Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express, with whom he recorded three albums.
Mullen subsequently joined the British soul band Kokomo, a group that also included future King Crimson saxophonist Mel Collins. He then toured and recorded with his compatriots, the Average White Band.
It was through AWB that he met the British saxophonist Dick Morrissey (1940-2000) and the pair joined up to form the phenomenally successful jazz-funk outfit Morrissey- Mullen, which ran from 1976 to 1988. M & M, as they became known, toured relentlessly and acquired a considerable following that included many younger listeners. Some mates of mine were at university in London in the late 70s and came home raving about the Morrissey-Mullen band. Sadly I never got to see them live, but their gigs are still the stuff of legend. Along the way M & M recorded seven albums and such was the size of their cult following that some of these actually scraped into the lower reaches of the pop charts.
Following the demise of M & M Mullen, always a jazz musician at heart, has followed a more conventional jazz path, collaborating with vocalist Claire Martin as well as running his own groups.
In the 1990s he led two different quartets, the first featuring Dave O’Higgins (tenor sax), Laurence Cottle (electric bass) and Ian Thomas (drums) releasing the album “Soundbites” for the EFZ imprint in 1993. Largely featuring Mullen’s own writing the recording revealed him to be a composer of some stature.
Mullen subsequently formed a new quartet featuring pianist Gareth Williams, bassist Mick Hutton and drummer Gary Husband. Among this group’s recordings was “Burns”, released in 2000 by Black Box Music. This featured Mullen’s arrangements of eleven songs by Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns. It’s a beautiful and enduring record and remains my favourite Mullen release. This group has more recently been revived as the Reunion Quartet and Mullen has also worked in a duo format with both Williams and Hutton.
The early 2000s saw Mullen adopting the organ trio as his primary creative outlet, with Matt Skelton at the drums and the Hammond chair filled first by Jim Watson and then by Mike Gorman. There have been a number of Mullen recordings in this format, with the core trio sometimes augmented by saxophonist Stan Sulzmann. These include 2007’s excellent “Smokescreen”, which is reviewed here.
Around this time I also enjoyed a live performance by the Mullen / Skelton / Gorman version of the trio at Ludlow Assembly Rooms. I also saw Mullen play in a variety of formats, including the organ trio augmented by Sulzmann, at the 2012 and 2014 Titley Jazz Festivals.
The version of the organ trio that Mullen brought to Kidderminster featured a returning Jim Watson playing a Nord C1 two manual keyboard, plus Tristan Maillot at the drum kit. Despite Mullen’s abilities as a composer the programme was entirely comprised of ‘outside’ material, predominately well known jazz standards.
Mullen’s status as a legend of British jazz ensured that this was the largest audience yet seen at KJC’s new home at St. Ambrose Parish Centre. Indeed I’d hazard a guess that this was biggest KJC attendance since the Club’s opening night with pianist / vocalist Wendy Kirkland and her quintet at the Town Hall back in 2019.
For anyone who has seen Jim Mullen play live the first thing that strikes you is his extraordinary technique. He plays everything with his right thumb-no plectrum or pick-and delivers solos of incredible inventiveness and agility with every note perfectly articulated. It’s a technique Wes Montgomery used to use and it’s absolutely fascinating to watch. Self taught, Mullen has played that way since he was eight years old, its not done for effect but it is extraordinary and also highly musical.
The trio set their stall out with a version of the Hoagy Carmichael / Johnny Mercer song “How Little We Know”, which Mullen dedicated, with wry Glaswegian wit, to Boris Johnson. The performance included fluent solos from Mullen and Watson plus a drum feature from Maillot. It was a format that was common to most of the pieces performed this evening.
Mullen informed us that the song “Lonely Town” had been written by Leonard Bernstein for the 1944 stage musical “On The Town”. It was then omitted from the 1947 film on the grounds that it was too sad and had too many minor chords. There was nothing remotely depressing about the trio’s version, which still managed to swing and again featured highly articulate solos from Mullen and Watson, plus a drum feature from Maillot.
The Toots Thielemans tune “For My Lady” began quietly, almost like a ballad, but gradually gathered momentum via the solos of Mullen and Watson before culminating in a series of drum breaks from Maillot. When introducing the tune Mullen was fulsome in his praise of Thielemans, perhaps the best known harmonica player in jazz, as he lauded the Belgian’s abilities as both a writer and a player, marvelling at the range of sounds that Thielemans could produce from “a little piece of tin”.
Mullen is obviously something of a film buff and informed us that the standard “Stairway To The Stars” had appeared in the Marilyn Monroe film “Some Like It Hot”. The trio performed it as a true ballad with Maillot deploying brushes, although the momentum did begin to build as Mullen and Watson delivered typically fluent solos. The piece concluded with an unaccompanied guitar cadenza from the leader.
The first set closed on a lively note with the Freddie Hubbard blues “Birdlike”. Inspired in turn by Charlie Parker the tricky bebop derived melody lines demonstrated Mullen’s immense technical facility as he and Watson delivered concise but exciting solos before trading fours with Maillot. A great, high energy way to conclude an excellent first half.
CD sales were brisk during the break but Mullen and the trio soon returned to kick start the second set with the Ray Noble tune “The Touch Of Your Lips”. The success of the first half had put Mullen in a playful mood and his solo was peppered with quotes. Watson followed on organ and the piece concluded with another set of trades with Maillot.
The title of “Estate” was taken from the Italian word for “summer” and brought a warm summer breeze to a chilly November night in Kidderminster. The music also had something of a sunny Brazilian flavour and Mullen, still feeling impish, again quoted liberally during his solo – I spotted “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “My Favourite Things”, but I’m sure there were others. Watson’s solo was followed by a full length drum solo from the excellent Maillot prior to a final excursion from Mullen underscored by a clipped, near funk groove.
“Angel Eyes” represented another ballad performance with Maillot’s economical drumming offering sensitive support to the solos of both Mullen and Watson. The latter’s organ playing drew heavily on gospel influences while Mullen leaned closer to the blues, most fitting for a musician who had once collaborated with the American blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon.
A more unusual choice was the Chick Corea composition “Up On The Wire”, a tune also sometimes referred to as “The Aerialist”. The song appeared on “Echoes of an Era”, a 1982 album by singer Chaka Khan that featured her fronting a stellar group of jazz players, among them Corea, Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist Joe Henderson, bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White. Corea’s composition represented the only original on an album otherwise full of standards. It’s clearly a tune that Mullen loves and it formed the basis for expansive guitar and organ solos, plus a drum feature for Maillot.
Set two closed with the theme from “University Challenge”, a tune that has been in the Organ Trio’s repertoire for some time, indeed I recall hearing it in Ludlow back in 2007. In Mullen’s hands it becomes a fiercely swinging vehicle for his own quote laden soloing, Watson’s barnstorming keyboard playing and Maillot’s exuberant drumming. It may represent something of a ‘novelty’, but it’s a highly effective one and one that clearly delighted the Kidderminster audience, Maybe the programme should retire the version by the Balanescu String Quartet and use Jim’s instead.
After a brief period of confusion the deserved encore was a solo guitar performance of the jazz standard “I Can’t Get Started”, but it did take the audience a while to quieten down and give it their full attention.
Despite the element of predictability this was an excellent performance by Mullen and the trio that featured some superb playing from all three protagonists. The enthusiasm of the large audience was also a significant factor, helping to turn this gig into an EVENT. Of course the real star of the show was Mullen’s right thumb, a digit routinely referred to as “Mutant” or “Magic”.
After the show the man with the Mutant / Magic Thumb talked readily to audience members and signed CDs, including my twenty three year old copy of “Burns”. Thanks, Jim.
I also treated myself to a copy of what is still Jim’s latest release, “Volunteers”, which came out in 2018 on his own Diving Duck record label. It features an all star nonet that includes Maillot, Gareth Williams and Mick Hutton playing a set of arrangements by flautist Gareth Lockrane, a musician who runs his own big band. The personnel also includes saxophonists Alan Barnes and Julian Siegel, trumpeter Steve Fishwick and trombonist Mark Nightingale. The material includes five Mullen originals and four standards and the album makes for very interesting and enjoyable listening. It was recorded following a bout of illness that kept Mullen out of action for most of 2017. Mercifully he’s now fully recovered and playing as well as ever, as tonight’s superb performance amply demonstrated.
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