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Swing Easy: The Jim Mullen Trio with Zoe Francis at Hospitalfield Jazz 24.9.16

When it comes to axe heroes, the most influential of them tend to go quietly and carry a big guitar. Jim Mullen is one of them, and his performance last Saturday at Hospitalfield showed that young players can learn an awful lot from his very fine example.

The most important thing he demonstrated was how important, and rewarding it is to develop your own style. Mullen actually had little choice as an untutored southpaw who had to find his own way around his instrument of choice. Yet, for all the attention paid to his distinctive thumb-led right hand, it’s his all round mastery of melody that truly catches the ear.

The two-set programme was a gently persuasive set of tunes, consisting of standards old, new and very recent; each linked by Mullen’s idiosyncratic playing, and the stylistic shadings of Paul Harrison on organ and Doug Hough on drums. Zoe Francis joined them on several numbers bringing sensuous vocals, and American Songbook values to enhance the generally easy-going sense of swing.

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Early markers were set down with East of the Sun and West of the Moon, and a tribute to the late Toots Thielmanns on the late harmonica legend’s For My Lady. However, Mullen is too much of a musician with too much history as a trail-blazer to settle into any sort of comfort zone.

His choice of material included After The Love Has Gone, a mega-hit for sequinned soulsters Earth Wind and Fire, and the divine main melody from Cinema Paradiso. These songs offer rich pickings for a player of Mullen’s calibre, for he has more passing chords at his disposal than there are passing ships in the North Sea at night.

If there was any sense of period jazz implied by the line-up, then it might best be described as retro-chic soul food, with lashings of hot sauce. Paul Harrison, playing a Hammond B3 clone, vamped and swirled, and coughed and barked appropriately, but his solos were hotly, deliriously modern. Mullen still burns his way through the fretboard in the most inimitable way, but the effect here was a warm glow, rather than discomfiting white heat.

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Doug Hough on drums chose a highly percussive path in the first set, in order perhaps to nicely accentuate the easy swing of songs like He’s Funny That Way and Out Of This World, which were elegantly delivered by Zoe Francis. In the second set, Hough found some distinctive grooves that noticeably stepped up the pace, and opened up the throttle on the more energetic passages of play.

Nevertheless, this was an evening for remembering songs that make us swoon. They do so because they are a heady mix of received wisdom, self-evident truths and collective memory. Zoe Francis is a jazz vocalist in the classic mode, but she also connects strongly with the head and heart conflicts that drive authentic song writing. Born To Be Blue and Early Autumn, were sung not only with belief, but empathy as well.

It’s an important point to make, because Francis’ rendition of Billie Holliday’s version of My Man, with only Mullen’s guitar for accompaniment, touched the raw, exposed nerves of Lady Day’s vocal vulnerabilities, and unstintingly embraced the inferred pathos in the lyric. It was a performance that drew from the crowd a sound that we may usefully call ‘The Hospitalfield Murmuration’. This is not to be confused with the sight of a flock of starling erupting. It is a form of approval generally expressed by a series of ‘Ahhhs”, and ‘Hmmms’ and ‘Ooooh’s’ and ‘Ohhh’s’ that rise from the darkness, and prompt performers into small smiles of satisfaction at a job well done.

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