As much as we cringe at the thought of cliches, they exist pretty much because they speak to universal truths about the human – and by extension, musical – condition. Two biggies come to mind when you experience the sheer exuberance, excitement and empowering, partly nostalgic but full throttle forward thinking energy of This Way Up! – Rob Mullins’ incredible 40th album in 40 years.
First, “time flies when you’re having fun” (and anyone who’s seen him live can attest to the live party spirit, so impactfully captured here) and the old standby, “If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.” Maybe he never dreamed he would still be around, enthralling listeners and audiences decades later.
Yet whether you’re a longtime loyal enthusiast or (somehow) a newcomer to the multi-talented pianist, keyboardist and composer’s freewheeling vibe, you’ll be grateful he is when you listen to This Way Up!’s wild array of refashioned original standbys - the smooth jazzy “Wednesday,” the spy movie cool “Tiptoe,” featuring Joe Anderies’ dreamy, slyly soulful alto flute), the whimsical calypso romp “Ooh La La! ”) - and adventurous reworkings of classics you thought you’d heard the final word on.
This slate of colorful re-imaginings starts with a wild rumble through “Take Five” (which unexpectedly quotes “My Favorite Things” right after Gabriel Mervine’s hypnotic, ultimately “dizzying” trumpet solo), stops along the way for a crazy-cool Latin-fired, Herb Alpertesque mashup of “Mrs. Robinson” and “Tequila” (“Mrs. Robinson drinks Tequila”) and an infectious, reggae tinged light funk swirl through “Ain’t No Sunshine” featuring drummer Liam Zham’s sensual vocals – and culminating in a fiery funk/rock blast through “Come Together.”
Mullins’ joyful schizophrenia – a phrase I like to use for collections that dart in way too many stylistic direction to count but somehow make blissful thematic sense – also includes engaging spins through three treasured grooving jazz classics (Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon,” Nat Adderley’s “Work Song,” Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower” – and the trippy, offbeat and otherworldly ambient “Freedom,” which offers a brief showcase of Mullins’ deeper fusion influences. Beyond just a splendid and thoughtful mix of tunes representative of his eclectic stylistic leanings, the album is also a showcase for some underrepresented talent from his one time home base of Denver, including the aforementioned Andries (aces on soprano and alto in addition to flute), Mervine on trumpet/flugelhorn, drummer Zahm and bassist Andrew Rose.
Reflecting on his extraordinary journey, Mullins says, “I knew going in it was going to be a rocky road and a hard life in many ways, but I’m not unhappy about my choices. I just keep going, always looking ahead, and only looking back to the fond memories, good times, and my songs many of which have stood the test of time. What I am most happy about after all these years is that I still find life interesting and full of wonder. Having the opportunity to share music, food, ideas, and stories while getting paid to go all over the world is a blast! This album is party music for older fans and coming generations who may be just discovering me for the very first time. This was a magic day in the studio and I’m happy every time I hear the result.”
Looking “Up” to many more magical musical endeavors, the keyboardist taps into cliché proof phrasing all veteran artists whose career has survived decades of ups and downs should aspire to: “40 Years. 40 Albums. No Regrets.”