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An Exchange of Musical Ideas : Jazz: Rob Mullins performed 'Take 5' in Vietnam and hears original works. He plays Saturday at OCC.

January 21, 1994|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Before he left for Hanoi last month, Rob Mullins saw Oliver Stone's latest film, "Heaven and Earth," which chronicles four decades of a Vietnamese woman's life. But it didn't prepare him for what he found there.

"It's a place where time is still stuck back somewhere in the past," the keyboardist from Huntington Beach said. "They're still trying to develop basic things like electricity, public transportation, systems of distribution for their products. It's going to be a long time before they catch up."

Mullins, 36, visited Hanoi to play in the city's opera house. The trip was sponsored by Colorado-based International Exposure, a nonprofit group that encourages humanitarianism through cultural exchanges.

For his part, Mullins brought an unfamiliar art form to the Southeast Asian country, one that that populace seems hungry for.

"The Vietnamese have a lot of respect for their traditional art forms and music, forms that are fascinating and very unique in character," he said. "But they're still trying to find their way in terms of identity in pop music and jazz."

The New Year's Eve concert at the Hanoi Opera House was the central event in Mullins' 12-day odyssey. The 750-seat facility, built by the French in 1911, was filled to capacity for Mullins' performance.

"It's the place where Ho Chi Minh would watch performances by the Vietnamese National Orchestra as well as traditional bands from the local conservatory," Mullins said. "For my concert, there were 5-year-old kids in tattered clothes sitting next to government officials. It was so crowded that people were standing in the wings and the aisles."

After introductory speeches by the head of the city's music conservatory and Terrianne Steinhauer, head of International Exposure, "It was time to rock," Mullins said.

Working solo, Mullins employed prerecorded digital tapes to provide his own backing, while playing the synthesizer he brought with him as well as the opera house's grand piano.

"I recorded all the tracks in advance back in my studio, and they sounded huge. I had a digital representation of the world's finest jazz band."

Mullins, who plays Saturday at Orange Coast College's Robert B. Moore Theatre, opened with his "Welcome to New York," then played his Grammy-nominated "Making Love" before moving into the Paul Desmond-Dave Brubeck tune, "Take 5."

"Some people in the audience knew the song from when it was a pop hit in the '50s, and they applauded. Then, I started playing (the strings) inside the piano, playing percussively and hitting the low-end strings with my hand for a bass sound, and people just went off, cheering and clapping."

Finally, Mullins closed his solo part of the concert with "Peace," a mid-tempo ballad composed especially for the concert. "It's my musical gift and wish for positive relationships for Vietnam and the future," he said.

*

For an encore, Mullins brought up the members of the city's only jazz ensemble, the Orient Band, to jam with him on "Caravan."

"People went crazy," Mullins recalled, "and everyone on stage was hugging and smiling. Then it was time to meet the audience. Many came up who could speak English; those who couldn't spoke through my translator. You could see they were really touched, some were even crying. It was a very emotional moment for me."

In the days before the concert, Mullins visited the Hanoi Music Conservatory to meet with his fellow musicians.

"It was . . . down a dirt lane, just three buildings, all in a state of disrepair." He toured the conservatory's various departments--vocal, symphonic, pop music and traditional Vietnamese music. He was appalled at what he found in the library.

"The only books they had were Russian editions of European classical masterworks. If a student wanted to go into the library for sheet music to a pop song, they'd be out of luck. They've never seen sheet music for that type of thing. The entire music collection consists of 40 CDs, all classical, and one machine to play them on. I gave them five of my recordings, and it was the first jazz CDs they had."

Then Mullins heard from the students, including a young keyboardist with an ear for boogie-woogie, and from the Orient Band.

"They presented a few American jazz tunes as well as some original music that was fantastic; like Chick Corea-meets-Vietnam. I was very impressed with the ability levels, especially since it is so difficult to get their hands on material to learn from."

Mullins also was influenced musically by his journey.

"You'll hear it in my work in the future," he said. "When I went to Japan in the late '80s, it influenced my work and I came out with 'Tokyo Nights.' Now I would like to work with the sounds of American jazz, funk and Vietnamese traditional music as well as European symphonic music to create a new style of world music."

Mullins also felt empathy for his fellow musicians in Vietnam.

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