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Playing to the Crowd : Keyboardist Rob Mullins, performing at Le Cafe this weekend, says he tries to make the audience 'feel included.'

March 11, 1994|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times

SHERMAN OAKS — Rob Mullins, the keyboardist who's been a steady fixture at Southern California jazz clubs for close to a decade, says the primary responsibility of a musician is to reach his audience.

"I think too much of the time, jazz musicians don't consider who's out there listening," says Mullins, who lives in Huntington Beach. "After all, they're the ones that make your house payments. And, let's face it: Music is entertainment. If people aren't entertained, you haven't accomplished anything."

Not that Mullins plays strictly for his fans. He's also moved by the personal gratification that comes from expressing himself creatively, and the opportunity the stage provides for making social and political statements. "So, for me, it's those things, combined with making the audience happy," he says. "I always try to put on a show that makes the audience feel included."

Mullins appears with his solid quartet--featuring Crusaders saxman Wilton Felder and drummer Ndugu Chancler--tonight and Saturday at the Room Upstairs at Le Cafe in Sherman Oaks. One way he'll get his audience involved in his performance is to offer such contemporary-flavored, R&B/jazz-oriented songs as "Polka Dot Dress" and "One Night in Houston," numbers that are driven by a dynamic backbeat pulse provided by Chancler.

These are selections Mullins loosely groups under the rubric of "groove" tunes. He describes the style:

"Basically the groove is about creating a certain feeling," he says. "It doesn't have anything to do with how many notes you play, or how fast. It's about how the players in the band play together to create a vibe."


"That's playing the specific parts with the correct attitude in each song, which will always be different," he says. "When it's done right, and the band is creating a feeling, and the crowd is responding, it makes you happy."

Mullins points out that jazz music influenced by contemporary R&B, as exemplified by such artists as the Crusaders, Kenny G and Fourplay, has long been more popular than mainstream-based, straight-ahead jazz--the kind played by pianist Oscar Peterson, the Count Basie band and the Modern Jazz Quartet. The keyboardist feels the reason for the disparity is the difference in the beat.

"In the straight-ahead music, the beat is more implied, more disguised," he says. "But in groove-oriented music, there's no question as to where the beat is. That's why it's more popular. That doesn't make groove-oriented music better. It's just different."

Mullins has played Le Cafe on several occasions, and owner Dale Jaffe says the keyboardist always makes good on his promise to please the audience. "Rob has great energy, and he and the wonderful people he brings with him excite the crowd," Jaffe says.


Born in Enid, Okla., raised in Ontario, Calif., and Denver, Mullins was initially a drummer, then took up piano at age 14 after a freak accident left him with a broken leg. After moving to Southern California in the mid-'80s, he established himself as a jazz musician with an ear for the public's taste with such albums as "Tokyo Nights" and the recent "One Night in Houston."

Though mostly heard in the Southland, Mullins has traveled to Japan, Europe, and last December to Hanoi to perform. The appearance, held New Year's Eve at the 750-seat Hanoi Opera House, built in 1911 by the French government, was titled "Playing for Peace" and was sponsored by a Colorado family who Mullins knows with cultural ties to the Vietnam government.

"It was a unique and exciting opportunity," says Mullins, who, in addition to his performance, conducted some clinics at the Hanoi Music Conservatory. "It was personally very gratifying to see the enjoyment on the people's faces when they heard American jazz. They sometimes got so excited, they'd give me ovations in the middle of songs."

Mullins says his Vietnamese trip will bear fruit in terms of new music. "When I went to Japan in 1990, my "Tokyo Nights" album came out of that experience," he says.

"Now I'll be working with traditional Vietnamese musical sounds. I like incorporating new sounds, new ideas. All this music of the world is influencing jazz artists, and I think that's what's exciting about the future."

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