By Ralph Burnett
Rob Mounsey...haven't I heard that name before? Isn't he that famous plastic harmonica player from New York? No...but his first musical instrument was a 69-cent plastic harmonica that his father brought home to him from the grocery store as a gag when he was seven. And Flying Monkey Orchestra?...That's a hip name for the troop of on-line artificial-intelligent electronic gadgets that fill Mounsey's Studio loft in New York's historic Flatiron district. Maybe the names Steely Dan, Paul Simon and Donald Fagen sound a bit more familiar. Those aren't just a list of Rob's friends, he performed (principally on keyboards) and arranged on Gaucho, Graceland and The Nightfly (which he received a Grammy nomination with Donald for the arrangement of "Ruby Baby"). Here, however, is a list of Rob's friends: Carly Simon, Michael Franks, Bill Gable, Madonna, Diana Ross, Phil Collins, Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin, Joe Cocker, Gladys Knight, Billy Joel, Roberta Flack, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Brian Wilson, George Benson, James Taylor, Jimmy Webb, Rickie Lee Jones and a host of others whom he has produced, arranged or contributed to as a musician. Mounsey also wrote the score for the film Working Girl and produced its Academy Award-winning song "Let The River Run" as well as helping Fagen compose the score to Bright Lights, Big City, and has been involved in the music of Animal House, Reds and The King Of Comedy. And, as many highly acclaimed musicians, Mounsey has found honest, almost steady work for himself--as a jingle star. Mounsey's handiwork in writing, producing, arranging, and conducting can be found in commercials for Coke, Dr. Pepper, Miller High Life, Burger King, and dozens of other consumables -- more than he cares to remember. Oh, I almost forgot...he occasionally works nights too, filling in for Paul Shaffer on Late Night With David Letterman. Chances are if just Rob Mounsey's friends buy DIG, his first solo effort found on Narada's prestigious Sona Gaia label, it should go gold!
As you can see, this 36-year-old product of the Berklee College of Music in Boston has been on the sharp-end of the twin-blade commercial music scene for most of his life... But DIG is clearly a departure into his daring instincts and can best be described as instrumental world music. When first listening to DIG, expect the unexpected followed by a twist of the exotic with thumb-thumbing and slightly-slanted urban effects framed by African tribal rhythms with totally-hip textures. "Sometimes I think of myself as a Henry Mancini from Mars," says Mounsey, "you can hear things on DIG that appear impossible, like a hallucination. I like to shake people up a little with my music. Sometimes I even scare myself, but I wouldn't have been happy with this album if it didn't have some strange qualities to it. If all I wanted to do was recreate something I've heard before, I could do that on someone else's record."
In spite of his success as a pop and film music guru, Rob is staunch in pointing out that his best work has been on personal projects germinated from a desire for self-discovery instead of money. This is evident in the 1988 Grammy nominated album Local Color (for best New Age Recording) which Mounsey recorded with Steve Kahn on the Denon label. Mounsey recalls, "when Steve called me up to tell me [about the nomination], he was cracking up laughing. We had no idea we'd made a new age record." Mounsey admits, "I was blessedly unconscious of what the new age idiom was. I don't even know what jazz is. Rather than soothe people, I often find I'm trying to wake them up." Even after several listens to DIG, it's difficult to nail-down the musical messages Rob is trying to portray. He describes DIG as "a serious composer's record." Says Mounsey, "when I listen to it, I hear a lot of different things from different places. I look for conversations and connections most people don't think of." This daring and somewhat unorthodox trek through musical images is as complex and enjoyable as Rob Mounsey is himself.
As we begin the nineties, complex, ground-breaking artists such as Rob Mounsey are sure to splash color on the sometimes predictable gradated framework of categorized music -- and maybe, if we let them, they'll re-chart the evolutionary course of contemporary music in the process.