by Ian Mann
January 17, 2007
"Smokescreen" is a treat. Swinging, grooving and technically dazzling many of the performances on the album are first takes emphasising the trio's credentials as a terrific live act.
Jim Mullen “the man with the mutant thumb” is one of Britain’s most popular and respected jazz musicians. Over the course of a long career Mullen has done it all. In the early 70’s he played jazz-rock fusion with organist Brian Auger. He later formed the legendary Morrissey/Mullen Band with tenor saxophonist the late, great Dick Morrissey. The MMB’s brand of soul/jazz/fusion was phenomenally popular and they built up a reputation as a formidable live band. The MMB lasted fifteen years and since this time Mullen has worked in a more conventional jazz context appearing with singer Claire Martin and also running his own quartet.
In recent years the organ trio has been his main creative outlet the current line up being himself, drummer Matt Skelton and Mike Gorman on Hammond (replacing original incumbent Jim Watson).
“Smokescreen” is Mullen’s latest organ trio album following the well received “Gig Bag” from 2004. The trio are a popular live attraction and a mainstay of the festival circuit.
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 is 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. Mullen is a resourceful and swinging soloist and on “Smokescreen” he is just as assured as ever.
“Smokescreen” is pretty much a joy from start to finish. Gorman lays down a great groove on his Hammond B3 and also proves to be a fluent soloist. He largely avoids any hints of the 60’s style cheesiness that can sometimes blight the Hammond sound. Gorman also proves to be a fine composer, contributing five of the album’s titles. Skelton’s uncomplicated but swinging drumming drives everything along beautifully. And then you’ve got the peerless Mullen and that famous thumb.
Saxophonist Stan Sulzmann guests on three tracks. Sulzmann is a consummate player, equally at home on tenor and soprano and he can also double on flute.
Sulzmann is also a fine writer although he does not appear in the composer’s role here. He is comfortable in any context, from a duet with pianist John Taylor to leading his own big band. Something of a gentle giant and with a self-effacing manner Sulzmann is criminally underrated. Here Sulzmann adds his relaxed, smoky, blues tinged tenor to Gorman’s opening “Consolidation” and returns to add more of the same to “When I Grow Up”, also from the pen of Gorman.
Glaswegian Mullen has a special affinity for the songs and poems of his compatriot Robert Burns. His arrangement of Burns’ “The White Cockade” features Sulzmann’s serpentine soprano alongside Mullen’s crisp guitar. In 2000 Mullen released an entire album of settings of Burns’ works. Simply entitled “Burns” it featured his quartet of the time comprising of Gareth Williams (piano), Mick Hutton (bass) and drummer Gary Husband. Immaculately played by a superb band this album surpasses even “Smokescreen” and is Mullen’s most satisfying work to date.
Mullen also has a fondness for the works of Steely Dan. Here they take on the title track of the “Aja” album. One of Becker and Fagen’s most ambitious compositions the original is something of a tour de force featuring the tenor saxophone of the great Wayne Shorter and the explosive drumming of Steve Gadd. The organ trio more than do it justice on what must have been a very interesting tune to play. Skelton enjoys himself in the drum chair as he interprets Gadd’s role. I seem to remember the Morrissey/Mullen band playing a storming version of “Deacon Blues” also from the “Aja” album.
Other outside material includes Burt Bacharach & Hal David’s “Walk On By”. A version of this subsequently became a somewhat incongruous hit single for The Stranglers. Mullen and Co. wisely avoid the punk approach but still set up an enjoyable groove as the framework for their improvisations.
Also featured are the standards “Stairway To The Stars” and “It Never Entered My Mind” which close the album. “Stairway” is the album’s only ballad and is given an appropriately sensitive reading. “It Never Entered my Mind” is executed in a bustling bebop style and is a rousing way to conclude a fine record.
Gorman’s other credits include “Buzzard Count”, and the title track, both of which groove along in the manner of Jimmy Smith. Both feature the astonishingly nimble guitar of Mullen and the controlled energy of Skelton plus Gorman’s undoubted keyboard skills. “Chances Are” exhibits many of the same virtues but in a slightly more reflective manner.
Mullen contribution with the pen is the boppish “Cornelius” which highlights his clean, swinging guitar style.
All in all “Smokescreen” is a treat. Swinging, grooving and technically dazzling many of the performances on the album are first takes emphasising the trio’s credentials as a terrific live act. There are no airs and graces about Mullen and his trio and the aims of this album are refreshingly unpretentious. Mullen may have been in this game a long time but there’s no doubting the joy he still gets from music making. Long may he continue to do so.
Details of the organ trio’s releases and upcoming gigs can be found at http://www.jimmullenorgantrio.com
Mullen is also currently working with his “Great Wee Band” featuring Henry Lowther on trumpet, Dave Green on bass and Stu Butterfield at the drums. Quite a line up. They have a gig at the Biggin Hall Pub, Binley Road, Coventry on Thursday 18th January 2007 at 8.30. Admission is £8.00.blog comments powered by Disqus