For some time prior to his passing in October 2015 Mark Murphy had rightly been elevated to the status of doyen, in part out of respect for the length of his career, but emphatically because of the mastery and class with which he performed his art.
The New York-based label, Harbinger Records, have released a recording of a live date at the Gazarte Club in Athens from April 2008. Whilst his studio-recorded albums have left us with a rich legacy, it is in this environment that Murphy does what Murphy did best.
The set list is nothing too revolutionary, but encapsulates his essence – a blend of ‘greatest hits’, staples from the Great American Songbook and some Jobim thrown in for good measure.
Murphy’s voice is less dynamic and a degree or so frailer around the edges, relying a little more on vocalese, but the wonderful control of tone and pitch are still there. The mix of songs, mostly at mid tempo with the occasional ballad, suits Murphy in the autumn of his career (he would have been 76 at the time of the recording). He is also helped by the arrangements, which open up many of the numbers, giving scope for soloing from an excellent quartet, lead by Spiros Exaras on electric guitar and with Thomas Rueckert on piano, Alex Drakos on drums and George Georgiadis on acoustic bass.
Part of Murphy’s magic was to be able to reinvigorate songs that had become overexposed in the jazz canon. Take “My Funny Valentine” or “Summertime”, two archetypal standards. Murphy turns in toe-tapping, smile-inducing versions, thanks to his sensitive phrasing and expressive, melodic improvisations. The arrangements are joyful, with a sense of optimism and feature some neat soloing. “Autumn Leaves”, a song no less covered, contains one of my favourite Murphy stylings – the half-spoken, half-sung opening/close and is about as ‘fierce’ as the tempo gets on the recording.
It’s hard to imagine Murphy getting through a gig without including his classic vocal renditions of “Milestones” and “Red Clay” and he doesn’t disappoint here. The former, originally featured on “Rah”, his 1961 album on Riverside, is opened up allowing room for solos from Exaras, Rueckert and Drakos. Only on “Red Clay” does Murphy seem a little stretched at times and this version falls a little flat for me.
Murphy closes the set with a Jobim medley featuring “Inútil Paisagem” and “Dindi”.
I make no bones about the fact that this review is touched by a degree of sentimentality. As his swansong, “Live in Athens” gives the listener the opportunity to reflect on Murphy’s career with a mixture of joy and a sense of loss.