London calling as Mullen puts his soul into it for pub gig

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 March, 2007, 12:00am

One of the great joys of visiting England is jazz in pubs. London has historically been particularly well served in this respect, but leafing through the national listings reveals considerable growth across the country in the number of venues presenting live jazz and blues.

I was particularly pleased to find that my favourite British jazz guitarist, Jim Mullen, was playing a Sunday afternoon gig at a pub in Kent, where I happened to be, and went along for the gig.

Mullen is much in demand as a guitarist for visiting American jazz and blues artists when they play rather more upmarket venues such as Ronnie Scott's and the Pizza Express in Dean Street, and in recent years those are the contexts in which I've usually caught him. There's an additional pleasure, though, in having a pint of bitter to hand when hearing him play.

Partly, this is nostalgia. Almost 30 years ago I used to see Mullen and his saxophonist partner, the late Dick Morrissey, performing their uniquely adventurous line in jazz funk at pub venues such as the Bull's Head in Barnes and the Half Moon in Putney - both still important live music venues today.

It's also, however, because the music he now plays, with the Jim Mullen Organ Trio, which has a new album, Smokescreen, out on Diving Duck Recordings (, is a sort of soul jazz that seems to breathe best in a pub atmosphere.

Soul jazz, when it started, was largely a product of the perception that modern jazz had become inaccessible to much of its audience, and was a conscious attempt to reconnect with it, stressing the melodic and emotional elements of the music and taking a leaf from Ray Charles' book in mixing the blues with gospel.

Mullen, with organist Mike Gorman and drummer Matt Skelton, played two fine sets, drawn largely from Smokescreen and their previous album, Gig Bag, with tunes ranging from Puccini's Nessun Dorma to Burt Bacharach's Walk on By, along with a selection of strong Gorman originals, and standards including Stairway to the Stars and It Never Entered My Mind.

Mullen has a record of performing jazz interpretations of Steely Dan and Earth, Wind and Fire tunes to advantage. Aja and After the Love Has Gone were high points, and Skelton was particularly outstanding in reinterpreting Steve Gadd's demanding drum part on Aja.

The trio performs live in the studio and sounds just as good on record. I can recommend Smokescreen, which also features three guest appearances on tenor and soprano saxophones from Stan Sulzmann, recalling Mullen's memorable partnership with the much missed Morrissey. Everything Must Change on Sulphuric Records, a compilation of Morrissey-Mullen's studio recordings from the 1970s and 80s, is also well worth buying.

Mullen's performance wasn't the only reason I found myself reflecting on soul jazz this week. The other was more melancholy.

One of the most successful groups of that genre during the music's 50s and 60s heyday was the Ramsey Lewis Trio, which made the big time in 1965 with a hit single version of The In Crowd.

The bassist with that unit was Eldee Young, a familiar smiling face to jazz lovers in Asia during the past 20 years from residencies here, and - among other places - Singapore and finally Bangkok, where he died on February 13.

Young and his drummer partner from the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Isaac Redd Holt, also had major hits with their band Young Holt Unlimited in Soulful Strut and Wack Wack, before embarking on a range of projects.

A fine and versatile bassist, and by turns an emotional and humorous singer, Young was always busy, and played with a long list of artists, including Dizzy Gillespie, Dinah Washington, Oscar Brown Jnr, and James Moody.

In Singapore he formed an enduring friendship and musical partnership with pianist and composer Jeremy Monteiro, with whom he played a set at the 1988 Montreux jazz festival, along

with Holt, guitarist O'Donel Levy and saxophonist the late John Stubblefield.

Monteiro recalls his friend as a great teacher, as well as player, and credits him as a mentor and inspiration. 'Eldee often said to me, using a Native American analogy, 'To be a successful musician, you have to know how to be a chief and you have to know how to be an Indian'. Eldee was a consummate leader and a consummate sideman. But truth be told, anyone who was smart enough to hire Eldee as a sideman always knew that the moment the music started, the best thing to do was to defer to Eldee and let him lead.'

One of the kindest men in jazz, as well as one of its best ambassadors, Eldee Young died unexpectedly during a residency at the Living Room at the Bangkok Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit. The last song he sang was, according to Monteiro, 'what many in the room thought was his most poignant and heartfelt rendition to date, of the song Everytime We Say Goodbye. Two days later, he peacefully left this world.' He was 71.

Returning to the subject of jazz guitar, next Friday and Saturday will be good nights for fans. On both evenings the Asian Super Guitar Project appear in a Hong Kong Arts Festival presentation at City Hall Concert Hall with a lineup comprising Korean guitarist Jack Lee, Japan's Kazumi Watanabe, our own Eugene Pao, and percussionist Lewis Pragasam from Malaysia.

On the same nights - you could go to one of each - blues and jazz guitar master Duke Robillard appears at Grappa's Cellar. There'll be some hot picking.