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Rob Mullins :: Storyteller
by Anna Gladkikh

Jazz pianist Rob Mullins came to Russia in January 2008 for three nights of shows at Union of Composers Club in the center of Moscow. Onstage he used the classic format of the jazz trio (piano, bass, and drums) but the performed music, atmosphere and quality were so impressive that many people returned again on the second, and even the third nights after first concert to hear this musical master of the keyboard.

This was not musician Rob Mullins first appearance in Moscow. He had played shows with Hubert Laws (flute), taught students at a jazz college in 2006, had a private party, and now presented three nights of great music which brought deep emotion, new knowledge, and contagious interest. Rob’s name is not well-known to the Russian audience but this week of gigs was a major step towards expanding his fame and fan base in the Russian musical community. Many special guests joined the trio onstage during the shows, and by themselves presented a completed band with astonishing sound and the fun of improvisations, sweet heartfelt ballads, and some groovy, almost funky old standards.

Rob Mullins is releasing his new album in March 2008, but in Russia he played the songs from his “Standards and More” album. He is not only a musician, but composer, recording artist, teacher, and book author. His fame is spreading throughout the world - he has played and recorded with The Crusaders, Hubert Laws, Ronnie Laws, Diane Reeves, Diane Schuur, Gerald Albright, Brian Bromberg, Frank Gambale, the Denver Symphony, Greg Vail, Jimmy Roberts, The China Club All Stars, James Woods, James Moody, Spike Robinson, Alphonso Johnson and others. He is a Grammy Nominee for his “Soulscape” album and is a voting member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (Grammy awards). His students get a chance to go on to the big entertainment world and can be successful there. His books are highly recommended at Berklee School of Music. It will take days to list all his rewards and achievements, so let’s come back to the show.

The club is a really nice place, pretty dark and with not great piano onstage. The latter did not stop the musicians from creating a unique, friendly climate and to communicate with audience easily. Rob Mullins played the originals and standards, taking them over with his piano, and during the show this musician plus the other trio members- Vladimir Koltsov on acoustic bass and Igor Ignatov on drums – were joined by some great Russian musicians. First - Oleg Butman (living in New York City), on the drums, and Natalia Smirnova – vocals. They played “All of Me “ and made it very bright, with an interesting approach to solos, talking together. And Oleg Butman brought some of the New York sound, playing close to Elvin Jones’ style, but with his individual traits, like laughing on high-hat and making tempo faster on tom tom. It was another, new band onstage when Oleg sat in. Then Igor Butman, famous Russian saxophone player came onstage, and there were little contests in their performances. Musicians were showing off on Rob Mullins’ song “Bb Major Etude”, then they played “Moanin’” (Booby Timmons).

The sets were about an hour each, but it seemed like ages and only a moment at the same time. The music led you somewhere- where you could see, memorize, feel, and understand more. And it was enjoyable looking at the musicians playing pathetique on “When I Fall In Love”, or the hot fiery “Island Girls” (composed by Rob Mullins) with drums seemingly from everywhere - on the piano - the repeating chords in high and mid register, on bass – fast walking lines, and obviously, the drum set, which was hot. “Georgia On My Mind” found a new life as a bossa nova. The group also did a very nice performance of “Softly As A Morning Sunrise”, and “Caravan” which was rich in piquant harmonies and rhythms.
Oleg Butman answered my questions during an interview after the show.
Anna Gladkikh: “What do you think about playing with Rob Mullins”?
Oleg Butman: “I really like him as a great musician, who is master of piano, his taste, the way he feels music, his wealth of knowledge. It is such a big pleasure to play with him, to dig in to the music together. He does not play just “the notes”, he plays his own things, and by playing, he is just telling. And he gets through everything- the melody line, harmony, chords. It is like a travel together. Everyone tells his story. When people get together and start talking, it can be in different ways. If the Guru is at the table, people mostly listen- not interrupting, sometimes nodding. But our playing together was like “I have heard it too”, “Yes, me too” – and it is a great talk! And audience listens to us, and some of them know what are we talking about” he said.
“The talk with Rob Mullins was really interesting and deep. This musician has been playing for years, and he still is learning, looking for new ideas, and the biggest thing – he wants to improve the music world, and the human’s world too” Oleg concluded.

Anna Gladkikh: - Hello, Rob. How do you like it here in Moscow?
Rob Mullins: Moscow is a very exciting city because of the new economy, great architecture, interesting people and great jazz scene.

A.G.: You played 3 shows , what are your impressions?
R.M.: I was very happy to see UC club sold out by the third night by my engagement, which I think is very exciting because of holidays in Moscow. My band was scheduled to be a quartet - with Oleg Kireyev, but unfortunately he was ill all three nights. So we performed as a trio, and I had some help from great Russian musicians.
A.G.: You performed originals and standards, you promoted your “Standards and More” album here. How did you get along with Russian musicians?
R.M.: I really enjoyed playing with Vladmir and Igor, it was exciting and a nice surprise for me to see first Oleg Butman, drummer from NYC, and vocalist Natasha Smirnova, as special guests in my show, and the biggest surprise for me was Igor Butman, sax performed with me on Friday night.
I was surprised to see him and welcome him to the stage, because I know of him by reputation only, I never had a chance to play music with him,
A.G.: What you think about playing together with them?
R.M.; It was really fun to perform my B Flat Major Etude with Igor and Oleg, This song is based on a jazz standard , compositional form called rhythm changes, it is something familiar to all jazz musicians. But my melody line over the chord changes can be very challenging for sax. Igor played my piece with great ease, and I was pleased with his intensity and unique improvisational style. His brother Oleg was smiling big smiles and playing great, interplay style with my piano comping, and the audience was feeling high energy, and great excitment from the surprise guests starts. A really nice surprise was the vocal talent Natasha Smirnova. I had been in Moscow jazz college, and I was dissapointed at a lever of talent of Russian singers. But when I heard Natalia Smirnova, I can see that she has the highest talent’s level of any singer I met in Moscow. She is a young singer, that needs more time to be developed her skills, but I think she will be a rising star on a Moscow music scene.
A.G.: Can you tell me about your impressions - how is it to play with Russian musicians, when jazz culture is not a root culture here.
R.M. : It is really case by case, I think it is individual situations. I have been in many countries around the world, it is same in most countries. What I mean by that - there are great jazz musicians all over the world., I think it is very individual. But I enjoy meeting local musicians and teaching them more about jazz music. so they can become better musicians.
A/G: What can you me about your style? How do you define it?
R.M. : I am bringing a world concept to the jazz idea. My influences in the past years have been middle eastern music, classical music, hip hop, Los Angeles life, and traditional jazz. So I would say that my style is a culmination of different sounds working together.
A.G: Is it this sound and style going to be the same on your next album? We did not hear it yet and so excited to hear!
R.M. - I think the new album Storyteller is expansion on my past jazz tradition plus the new influences of my life past experiences are included in this album. I produced world music album for female singer in LA. I listened a lot of Beethoven and Joe Zawinul for a influences on my new album. As a recording artist I feel it is very important to stay in touch with the different musical sounds developing around the world.
A.G.: Is it a trio or quartet?
R.M.: It is a trio album with added color from keyboards and percussion. On this album I played drums myself.
A.G.: I know that you had stopped your career as a drummer, was it hard to play again?
R.M.: I had to go to the practice room for several weeks to develop my approach for drumming, so that I could create the right style for the album.
A.G.: Do you involve any musicians when you recorded this album?
R.M.: I had Larry Antonino joining me on acoustic bass. Larry and I have played together many years. He was an important choice for the Storyteller project, because he is a highly adaptable bass player.
A.G.: What do you mean by highly adaptable bass player?
R.M.: Larry is capable of swing, R & B, rock, pop, and he can follow my lead in to new musical directions which was important for hits new musical project.
A.G: I know that you had recorded many albums by yourself. Why?
R.M.: I think it is natural for the pianist to be record alone, because it is a great sound to be recorded as a piano record.
A.G.: Do you prefer to play keyboard or acoustic?
R.M.: I prefer acoustic piano, because it is much more expressive. People who are familiar with my music know that one of my important musical signatures is the way I use bass lines, particularly under piano chords. And Larry also reads well, so he was able to quickly grasp the unusual bass lines. We even did an interesting improvisation together, when we only have acoustic piano and bass. The song titled “Tears for America”, is one of the most important stories I had to tell on this album. Anyone listening to the song will understand what I am talking about.
A.G.: What does it mean, “Storyteller”?
R.M.; My goal as a musician is to communicate in a universal way. Music is the most universal form of storytelling, and a well-told story can uplift the human spirit, import wisdom, evoke emotion, and by extension, improve the world. I wanted to create a new sound with this project that goes far beyond the limits of jazz music and classical to reflect the growing diversity and awareness that I have for the world. I feel that too many musicians are making too predictable music and the music listeners are getting more bored with normal genres. “Storyteller” is a departure from typical music and is intended to expand peoples’ understanding not only of the piano, but of the world in general.
A.G.: What do you think about the situation in music world, particularly in jazz world. You are not only a performing artist, but teacher, producer, author, so what are your thoughts and opinions?
R.M.: I think that there are strong opinions on both sides of the issue raised by your question.
In my opinion, the music scene in jazz is always going to be changing . In some areas of the world it will improve, while in some areas it will get bad. And in the areas where it is bad, it will eventually improve. To me this is a natural form of cultural movement, and it is important to remember that it is up to every person who loves music of a particular style to support it by attending concerts and clubs and to continue to buy the music to listen to. Musicians and composers are an important aspect of cultural expression in every society. It is important in the coming years for every society to embrace and support musical culture, because of it's value to life. When musicians and composers are well supported, societies find culminality and experience, they laugh and cry together, they think new ideas, and gain fresh perspectives about their lives.
A.G.: Can you predict development in jazz music for next 2 decades? Obviously, hard to predict anything in our days…
R.M. - As human awareness grows, listeners will expect deeper music from composers telling their own stories. and it will be the composers telling the most meaningful stories to the listeners who will survive the difficulties of music industry.
Everyone familiar with jazz music and it's past is waiting for some new sound to arrive. Because people are getting bored with the old sounds. A good composer can only lead the musical world in new directions when herу is expanding his own musical ideas through continued study and exposure to not only exsisting music and other artists, but to the ideas and situations, present invarious cultures around the world.
A.G.: Audience really liked your ballads. You have an amazing sound and some special kind of musical language. Who influenced you( if your were) ?
R.M.: - I play ballads much like a singer sings, and I think on a ballad you can say much more with fewer notes and a stronger lyrical expression. On ballads I also feel my strongest romantic emotions and the experiences of my life. I was happy to see the Russian audience so connected to these songs.
A.G.: Okay. What about your goals as a teacher, composer, author?
R.M.: I am well-positioned in the entertainment capital of the world, Los Angeles California. I spend much time during the day working with talented musicians and singers, preparing them for careers and music industry. My school is very small, and I do not accept many students, I prefer to work closely to a small number of students, so as to best improve their skills in every aspect of performance and to prepare them for the challenges they will face as performing and recording artist. As a teacher I bring all of my experience, as a musician, recording artist, book author and traveling composer to each class
It is not a traditional academy in many ways. Number one, because I am an active performing artist and recording artist at this point in my individual career and I can shape the talent of the future from a very broad yet-specialized view. I don’t want to seem egotistical, but I feel I have a very unique set of skills that go far beyond those of many teachers, and I can spot problems that inhibit the success of artist by working on areas outside of basic technique. For example, many pianists, rhythm and timing are huge problem, particularly pianists that perform in jazz and rock groups. My experience as a drummer is very valuable and correcting in these problems as piano and keyboard players. Also since Los Angeles is a very important capital of style and culture and part of the life there I can make recommendations to artist about the public presentation and performance techniques The most important part of this educational system is the satisfaction I receive in watching young talented students of mine go on to success in the entertainment industry. I welcome inquiries about my school and have had many international students.
A.G.: Are you students only piano players and singers?
R.M.:I also develop horn players and recording technological students.
A.G. Thank you , Rob! We have a big hope to see you again soon!
R.M. Thank you!

Photo: Rob Mullins & Igor Butman

published 19.01.2008 © 2005 jazz news :: home page