Tobin Mueller: Prestidigitation

American keys man takes a punchy, personal view of some fusion and soul classics from such as Weather Report, Hancock, Corea and Zappa

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Having released a number of albums over his career, as well as recording with names like Dave Brubeck and Paul Nelson, Tobin Mueller now offers his own takes on a variety of jazz, fusion and funk classics. This album, Prestidigitation, is the third volume following 2018’s two-volume album Standard Deviations, on which Mueller recorded a number of the most famous jazz standards. Prestidigitation follows in its footsteps, but with a more contemporary focus.

Beginning with a medley of Weather Report’s classic Birdland and Yes’s Long Distance Runaround, Mueller uses a dense instrumentation, switching between the melodies of the two tracks with an array of synths and keyboards, and staying faithful with a driving bass and sonorous horn section.

Next comes Tower Of Power’s What Is Hip, an uptempo funk track that Mueller plays with a more experimental approach, swapping the high energy of the original for a more sporadic, bluesy rhythm with a gritty, fusion-guitar solo from Paul Nelson. The third track, Watermelon Man, takes the same opening riff from Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters version, but deviates with a rich instrumentation emphasising flute and saxophone, with bluesy guitar and intense drums.

The title track is the only original on the album, and is very reminiscent of 80s fusion, building with discordant synths, but changing stylistically midway to a more rock-orientated vibe with a layered texture, before a final crescendo. Two more obscure tracks follow, first Chick Corea’s Sorceress and then Frank Zappa’s King Kong (a track Zappa recorded for a film that was never made), with the former swapping the funk groove of the original for a more nuanced and probing approach, and the latter a glossy jazz-inspired take.

There are then two more classic tracks, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps and Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, both with different rhythmic arrangements, and closing the album is America (My Country ’Tis Of Thee) / Peace Piece, performed with electric keyboards and synths and a warm vocal from Woody Mankowski, combining the traditional song with Bill Evans’s famous improvisation.

Mueller’s release is clever and fresh-sounding, offering a personal take on the history of fusion and picking out interesting tracks as vehicles for his own music. He ultimately delivers a distinctive and striking album.

Discography
Birdland / Long Distance Runaround; What Is Hip; Watermelon Man; Thank You; Contemporary Insanity; Prestidigitation; Sorceress; King Kong; Giant Steps; Superstition; America (My Country ’Tis Of Thee) / Peace Piece (58.30)
Mueller (elp, p, org, syn, b); Paul Nelson (elg); Woody Mankowski (ss, v); David Dejesus (as, bar, ts, f); Emily Rohm (v); Kenny Cash (pc); Lamar Moore (d, pc); Isaiah Schmidt (d); Ruben De Ruiter (pc); Mikie Martel (t); Bill Barner (cl). Connecticut, 2022.
tobinmueller.com