Inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2010, The Doors’ classic 1971 song “Riders on the Storm” is a psychedelic, gothic jazz rock/art rock classic famous for being the last song lead singer Jim Morrison recorded before his death July 3 of that year. While lyrically it was inspired in part by Morrison’s longtime girlfriend at the time and his fascination for a spree killer chronicled in the 1953 film noir The Hitch-Hiker, its haunting keyboard riffs (by Ray Manzarek) and moody musical atmosphere make it a classic rock brooder for the ages.
For veteran jazz pianist Rob Mullins, the song allows him to express unique elements of his personal history. His fresh, meditational, piano driven re-imagining is a true musical time travel experience that both harkens back to the early days of his musical journey – when The Doors debut album was one of the first albums he ever bought – and shares his impressions of two distinct eras of Los Angeles cultural history.
While many artists like Mullins who are skilled improvisors might have chosen to use the basic chording and infectious melody as a springboard for all sorts of impressionistic adventures, his no frills approach involves capturing the soulful essence of the tune with few frills. The intent was capturing the vibe of Southern California from Venice to the Inland Empire from his formative years in Ontario to more recent times living in Venice “watching,” as he says, “the storm of the virus and social chaos begin to meltdown the America we all grew up in.” For Mullins, the “killer on the road” has a much more universal identity.
For an artist who has worked with the contemporary jazz elite for years, it’s also significant that his essential arrangement features a rhythm section of two up and comers recording with Mullins for the first time. Bassist Jonathan Kirsh and drummer Nathan Douglas were on Mullins longtime weekend gigs at the Bandera Steakhouse in Brentwood.
To capture the dramatic duality of bittersweet nostalgia for a simpler era his life and these demonstrably emotionally heavier times, Mullins employs a fresh light/dark approach, starting with a hypnotic, sparkling intro using the piano’s higher register, then keeping some of those charming, lighter-hearted elements in the jaunty, rhythmic main melody as he builds ominous suspense via the darker foundational chords we’re most familiar with. Though in essence it’s a simple, straightforward arrangement, it lets in shards of musical light that even Morrison and the Doors probably didn’t think were possible when they first wrote and recorded it. All at once moody and mystical, and whimsical with dashes of hope, Mullins’ twist on “Riders on the Storm” is a contemporary jazz interpretation for the ages.
A special note on the artwork: The cover photo of Mullins performing at sunset was shot by a fan at a Costa Mesa jazz concert seven or eight years ago that she texted to the artist at the autograph table after the gig. He says, “I saved her photo all these years because it just looked so cool the way the sun was setting there and me up on that platform riding it out on yet another gig.”
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