Jim Mullen Interview
Sussex Jazz Magazine editor Charlie Anderson met up with Scottish guitarist Jim Mullen at his flat in London to discuss his new album, Catch My Drift, which he launches at The Verdict in Brighton on Friday 10th January, 2013
What was your experience in journalism?
I worked for a couple of newspapers in Scotland, while also playing music in my spare time, so to speak. I was a sub-editor in the days before computer technology, when you still had caserooms and Linotype operators, the guys typing out the words into metal.
I was a trainee journalist and became a sub editor.
I only really knocked that on the head as I got more into music and decided just to take my life in my hands, so to speak. I moved down to London and got a gig and it went from there.
Mind you, I think I jumped before I was pushed because the new technology meant that they didn’t need so many sub-editors. The new technology meant there was no more caseroom. I think I probably would have been let go as a relatively new guy.
How did the latest album come about?
Most jazz albums, as you probably know, are cottage-industry stuff. There’s not a lot of money about, so most of my albums are recorded in a day in a studio, which means you really have to be prepared.
My latest one, with my organ trio, is our fifth CD. We’ve been around for about ten years. I was really just thinking about the whole kind of concept album thing. Some guy in a suit presents you with what your new album is going to be. I always resisted the idea of tribute albums but when somebody famous dies they all want you to do a tribute to them. Even people like John Scofield have to do this. He told me that he has to do two albums of the company’s choice before he can do one of his own, which is quite a difficult trade-off.
Anyway, I did some notes for my new album, Catch My Drift, which means “do you understand me?”.
I was thinking about how it used to be in the old days before guys in suits told you what your album was going to consist of. Most of the albums that I love were made by musicians just turning up in the studio and deciding there and then what they were going to play. I think back to some of these Miles Davis Quintet albums where he was looking to get out of his contract and he owed them four albums. He took the band in one weekend and just whacked down the first takes of anything he fancied. And it sounds great! Sometimes that kind of natural, spontaneous thing is what makes jazz catch fire and really happen. That was my concept for this one. I didn’t go to the studio and decide, obviously. I thought about it in advance. I just picked out my current favourite tunes and then things that had been on my list to do for a while and hadn’t got round to. It’s a labour of love for me in that I’ve just picked out some really great tunes and got the band and rehearsed for a bit and then went in to the studio.
We had a few problems that day actually because they had an organ in the studio that was malfunctioning so of course if you’re doing it in a day, you don’t have a lot of time for guys to come and repair things. Fortunately, Mike Gorman, who plays organ in the trio, had his own organ in the car, one of those Nord two-manual things that’s portable, and he’s programmed in some great B3 sounds so it really sounds like a Hammond. So we brought that in and we were able to salvage the session but normally we would use a Hammond B3 (hired) to do the album just because it’s got more of a big rich sound. But taking it on the road is a whole other ball game. You need a truck and lots of strong young men to carry it around. I’ve still got hernias from twenty years ago carrying these things.
Anyway, we used Mike’s organ and it all came out. We had to re-record a couple of tracks once we’d discovered the problem with the studio organ but it was cool, we got it done, mixed it. I’m really pleased with it.
That was the plan. To do “this is where I’m at right now“. I’ve been recording for a lot of years, I don’t know if I’ve got that much left! I’ve recorded five albums last year. They’re not always my albums but things I’m involved in and it’s been a good year in terms of that. But most of the time I would only record my stuff once every two years. And you do need “new product” these days to be able to get festivals as they’re not interested unless you’ve got something to plug. So it puts pressure on you if you’re not a big, established international artist (which I’m not), you still need something out.
The whole thing about recording it quickly and cheaply is really down to budgetary requirements. The label we record for, Diving Duck, is run by a session player who inherited some money and put it into his own little label. So he lets me go in and do what I feel like doing and I’m very fortunate because I don’t have guys in suits telling me what I should be doing. I don’t think I’d be very good at doing that. Being Scottish and never part of the Diplomatic Corps, I tend to tell it like it is.
When I was a teenager I saw you performing as part of Morrissey-Mullen.
That’s most people’s first connection with me. The Average White Band, who were friends of mine, they had gone to America and recorded an album with MCA and they said they didn’t want it so they tore up the contract and they then got signed to Atlantic records and worked with a top producer. He added the magic final ingredient and suddenly their thing was global hits, with the number one single and album on Cashbox and Billboard.
They were riding high and they remembered old mates, I guess. So I got a call from New York saying “do you fancy coming to New York and recording an album with Dick Morrissey?” The two sax players in The Average White Band, Malcolm Duncan and Roger Ball, had been huge fans of Dick Morrissey. Dick had been in various bands and I think they’d had some lessons off him as well. They really liked his playing. Dick was one of the least ambitious guys you can imagine, he had no plans to try and “make it“. He was quite happy to accept whatever came his way but he was always a great presence on stage and really played his heart out every night. They gave me his number, we were living quite close, we met in a pub. We were both at a similar point in our lives. I’d just left a ten-piece band, Kokomo. Some great people in that band but I’d left and Dick had just left an English rock band with a horn section called If. He’d just got tired playing that loud. It was really loud.
Dick and I had both decided almost at the same time that we didn’t want to do that
any more and really we just wanted to follow our own feelings. He mentioned that he was a big fan of The Crusaders and those CTI albums with Stanley Turrentine and George Benson. And I love that, too. So we had a lot in common and he wanted to do something that was still be accessible to people but with more of a jazz element to it. So we got together.
I was crashing on the floor of a roadie friend’s front room in Wimbledon. I was at my lowest ebb, by the way. I had a suitcase and a guitar and that was it. I was actually considering going back to journalism because I hadn’t worked for a year.
Anyway, Dick and I got together. He had a few tunes, I had a few tunes. And we started just the two of us, trying it out and it worked. And we went out to New York and we did the album with The Average White Band, who had just finished doing their own album and were looking to just jam and have fun. They were very disciplined in the studio but they loved the idea of just jamming. I scribbled out some chord charts, they played it and it sounded great. They brought something to the music because they were so organised.
And that was the start of the Morrissey Mullen thing. And that went for almost 15 years. Dick was just…That was my musical education, having to follow him every night. He was fantastic, and I was just plinking-plonking away with little blues licks. I wasn’t really a developed player at that time and I really had to follow him every night which was very daunting because he was the finished article. He was great and he had a sound like this. When he was playing I was like “wow!” and so powerful and a great melodic sense and a fantastic rhythmic feel to his playing. He had everything. And he was a really gentle, sweet human being as well who never gave anyone a hard time in his whole life. I, however, was the other sort and one night he took me aside and said “Listen, don’t give guys a hard time. They’re trying their best. You can’t browbeat people into playing better. You can only encourage them.” And that’s what he did. When other people were playing he’d be like “yeah!” and really vocal with eye contact and encouragement. He was a very gracious and supportive guy. And I realised that eventually, being a bit of a twit when we first got together and thinking that you could hassle people into being better.
The band ran its course. Fifteen years is quite a long time in band terms, especially when you’re not big stars. And we really enjoyed playing together, and we had various versions of the band. But then it ran its course. Dick was the first one to go, he wanted to go back to playing his loose-blowing jazz in pubs. And his health was also beginning to deteriorate. I found it quite hard at first but then I started to find my way of doing things and I got various bands of my own together and that’s been me since 1990. The band went from 1975 to 1990. It took me a few years to find a way to go in terms of my own stuff and I had various bands. The organ trio has been for the last ten years. Plus working with other people. I’ve worked with singers and I’ve just been working quite a bit with English band Incognito who are very big in Japan and we’ve been out there a couple of times. I still work with Hamish Stuart from The Average White Band who lives in Kent now and he has various projects on the go.
I still do sessions so long as it’s not too hard. A lot of the young guys are writing these black pages of this complicated, upside-down stuff. I usually cop-out of all that. They’re all college educated, you know, and incredibly talented composers, great sight readers. I’m the other guy. I’m probably the last generation of completely self-taught players. I just learnt to do it by doing it and figuring it out as I went along, whereas most of the new generation, even the guys in my trio, they’re music college graduates. What that means is basically they learn things a lot faster. It took me twenty years to learn what they figured out in two. That wasn’t available to me when I was a kid, especially growing up in Scotland. There wasn’t even a guitar teacher there. You just gleaned what you could from kids. I got my first guitar when I was about eight. I used to go round to a kid who lived round the corner. I’d knock on his door and ask him to show me a chord. That’s what happened. There was no other way of doing it. This was before all the music minus one CDs you can get, this guy’s method, that guy’s method. The internet means there’s so much information available now, so the learning process is much faster. For me it was slow, plus I was working as a journalist for a lot of those years and music was a sideline. I never imagined I’d be a pro musician. But as you get older you realise that you’ve got to follow your feelings in certain things. The decision to leave journalism wasn’t taken lightly. Growing up in the East End of Glasgow, and job security – my Dad used to drive that into me.
I took the plunge and came down here to London. But I’m enjoying it. Music is a lifetime learning curve. I’m 68 now and I’m a better player now than I’ve ever been. You start to realise why some musics stay around and others go away. You start to see a kind of perspective. Why some musics don’t last. Maybe there isn’t enough there or they were too fashion-conscious at the time. I’m thinking particularly of a lot of the music of the Seventies, The Mahavishnus and Return to Forever. And the jazz guys were being pragmatic. They saw the so-called supergroups filling sports stadiums and they thought “shit, we play better than them, why don’t we do something together and wear funny clothes“. And that’s what happened. Miles Davis played a big part in that as well, taking jazz out of the club and into the concert hall or the sports stadium. And that became a big thing.
For me, this music that I play is never going to be mass popular. But there is an audience for it out there and actually I prefer playing in clubs. I remember Mose Allison who I worked with whenever he came over to London. He told me that he’d only play clubs because if you do a festival you don’t know what time of the day you’re going to be on, you have no control, the sound guy is 500 yards away and you have no control over what he does to your sound and Mose Allison’s music is very intimate and humorous and he needs to control that. And he can do that in a club but he can’t do it in a field, at a festival. Even in a concert hall it’s harder. So he really only does clubs, and I can understand that because most of the great music I’ve ever heard in my life was in clubs. Where you’re up close to what somebody’s doing. It’s more honest. On a stage, in a big arena, everything becomes more theatrical so for me, I’m still doing clubs and that’s fine. That’ll see me out!
Do you have plans for the future?
Try to stay alive, for as long as I can, basically. In fact I’m enrolling in a gym this month for the first time in fifty years or something like that. I’m going to try to get myself fit.
In this game it’s hard to make too many plans. Sometimes you look in the diary and you get snow-blindness because there’s all this white empty space. I’m just going to keep playing. I love playing. It’s something that I really enjoy doing. People seem to like what I do. I work quite regularly. In terms of plans, I just want to keep developing as a player. I haven’t written anything for a while so I need to get back into it. I haven’t written anything for a few years and I’m starting to feel the urge. I’ve got about 120 tunes out there, published but I tend to tire of my stuff more than I tire of other people’s. And I still work out of the standard repertoire, there’s still a lot of mileage in that stuff. There’s also some Brazilian music.
I still fool around with folk music. I did an album of Scottish folk songs once, written by Robert Burns and that was quite well received. Because I grew up with that stuff. On my last album there were two. It’s like a work in progress for me, I was singing those songs at school when I was five. They become lodged somewhere in the back of your mind. Some of them are really, really pretty songs. So I just added a little more harmony to it and tried to find a way of doing it that didn’t destroy it, and didn’t just jazz it up, like Benny Goodman playing “ye’ll take the high road, and I’ll take the low road” [The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond]. It became caricature and I hate that. For me it was really taking it seriously and that was one of the few things that I’d always wanted to do. I did it and it got probably the best reception than any of my other records ever had. I also did a similar thing with an album called Animation, which was music from Disney animated films. My mother was a big movie fan and took me to see a lot of those things.
Unfortunately, the record label we were with at that time decided to merge with a bigger label and our album went down the toilet, basically. So I found myself in the situation where I was touring in the winter promoting an album that came out with minimum publicity, months after the tour. But that’s the nature of this beast.
There’s not a lot of money behind it and things can always go wrong. We’d done this album for Atlantic and they put us on this subsidiary label and that was written off as a tax loss and we returned to England Harvest Fusion label and that turned out to be a tax loss as well, so we got shafted on both sides of the Atlantic.
The CD Launch at The Verdict
I like the Verdict. The one at the Verdict will be our first gig playing this music.
There’s a Chick Corea song on an album that Chaka Khan sang the melody of. It’s a great song called The Aerialist about a trapeze artist. The words are great, about the danger and the thrill and the music echoes that. A quite dangerous, tricky kind of melody and quite an exciting uptempo thing. There’s an Earth Wind and Fire tune that we’ve tried to make jazz out of called You Can’t Hide Love, which I used to play with Dick Morrissey way back as a funk thing, but now we’re doing it as a jazz rhythm thing but still paying good attention to the tune.
There’s a Toots Thielemans ballad which is really beautiful called For My Lady and a couple of old standards, Deep In A Dream by Jimmy Van Heusen which is normally a ballad but we play it fast.
And there’s a Billy Strayhorn thing called Daydream which is a really lovely medium swinger.
A couple of Antonio Carlos Jobim things, Samba de Aviao. It’s a fantastic tune. Also one of his ballads Esquecendo Voce.
There’s a Steely Dan tune. I’m a big fan of Donald Fagen’s writing. It’s called Maxine from the album The Nightfly.
So it’s a mixed bag again but it’s basically things that I’ve wanted to do for a while.
And it’s with my long-time trio, Mike Gorman on organ and Matt Skelton on drums. We really enjoy playing together. They’re great players. They were kids when we first started playing together. They’ve grown up now. I’ve watched them grow.
I enjoy playing with young guys. I do gigs with musicians that are still at college. London is full of music colleges teaching jazz which is great. So I’m playing with kids who know more than I do, which is a bit scary sometimes. But they’re really talented and this is what fills me with great hope for the future: talent will out. Talented people will never be ignored. It means there’s a broadening base for current players and future players because of the standard of playing now. For me it’s exciting. I used to be the youngest guy in every band I played in and now I’m the bloody oldest, by a long way. But I enjoy that and the challenge is always there.
I’ve always regarded myself as an ensemble player. I’ve always seen my role as to fit with other guys and not just to ignore them and just twiddle away. To integrate and to interact with what they’re doing. It’s exciting for me too to be involved with these talented young players.
Jim Mullen was interviewed by Charlie Anderson.
[Photo by Charlie Anderson]