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  • Jonathan Widran

ROB MULLINS, The Nearness of You

Nearly 30 years after first enjoying Rob Mullins’ wildly imaginative traditional and contemporary funk-jazz on classic, hard to find albums like “5th Gear” and “Jazz Jazz,” it’s inspiring to see that he continues to create inspiring works that engage and excite upon first listen and endure in the heart and mind long after.

An incredible 35 recordings into his career, the versatile pianist’s new, live in the studio trio collection The Nearness of You finds him alternately at his most intimate and swinging best, easing, rolling and boppin’ effortlessly through a colorful set list filled with fresh interpretations of oft and little covered standards, a small handful of originals (mood swinging from melancholy to spritely) and even a few Christmas tunes for good measure.

What’s that, you ask? Placing a jubilant run through of “Sleigh Ride” after a thoughtful meditative drift through “The Nearness of You”? Snappy struttin’ (much cooler than merely walking) in a “Winter Wonderland” following jaunty swirls through Sinatra-popularized gems “Witchcraft” (which everybody knows) and “Tangerine” (which many probably don’t)? Mullins may be the first artist in jazz history to so casually and perfectly place secular holiday tunes alongside songs we can listen to the other 11 months of the year. So what gives?

Scott Yanow’s insightful liner notes offer a clue. A stranger who liked the way Mullins and his live trio were playing offered him some free studio time at a facility with a rich history and a Yamaha grand piano. The studio owner had one condition: that the pianist record a few Christmas songs along with his originals and standards. Mullins agreed – and made sure to release The Nearness of You around the holidays when albums that start with gracefully swaying renditions of “A Child Is Born” are the norm.

Performed deftly and sensitively with the rhythm section of upright bassist Will Lyle (who had studied from Mullins Jazz Piano Voicings book while at Berklee) and drummer Nico Salvador, Mullins truly lives up to his vision of creating an overall sense of calm and tradition, simplicity and beauty, more about visceral emotions than jazz complexity. When the pianist says “calm,” however, he’s not talking all gentle, dreamy ballads. Listening to this fascinating, multi-faceted musical journey, my ears interpret that to mean “familiar, comfortable, but with dynamic twists.”

Most of the arrangements are uptempo, taking songs we have heard so many times before in fresh directions that propel them forward into the faster paced reality of modern times. This includes the rhythmic whimsical, improvisational spirit of “Moonlight in Vermont”; the simmering percussive fire of “Tango Delicioso”’ some lively skipping grooves and chordings on “The Girl From Ipanema” and a bright, freewheeling romp through “Stompin’ at the Savoy” whose charms include bursts of light via flurries from the piano’s upper register. The mid-tempo “Willow Weep For Me” is a slow simmering, then ultimately explosive blues number. It’s an excitement generating, stylistic callback to one of Mullins’ most memorable interpretations ever, “Georgia On My Mind.”

For good measure, Mullins follows the one decidedly darker shaded tune, “B Minor Ballad” with two brisk, playful numbers that close the set, the ironically titled “Meditation” (which will only have you meditating on toe tapping fun!) and a muscular declaration that “There is No Greater Love.” The Nearness of You succeeds on every level possible, making it a wonderful and essential addition to Mullin’s already expansive, multi-decade catalog.

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