It is now just over a year since Mark Murphy passed, at the age of 83. A good innings by most standards. Although Murphy was not a star in the conventional sense, within the jazz community amongst fellow performers and fans he had an enduring status as a consummate singer and performer. Whilst his appeal may have waxed and waned, if the epithet ‘‘star’ is not appropriate then ‘legend’ is closer to the mark, especially towards the end of his nigh on 60-year career.
Murphy had mixed fortunes during his early recording career. Groomed as a crooner in the mould of Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett, relationships with first Decca and then Capitol were short lived, neither quite working out, probably because their style was not necessarily his. “Rah”, the album he released in 1961 on Riverside, is seen by many as his most significant early success. It features “Milestones”, an instrumental track from Miles Davis’s hit album of the same name, to which Murphy added lyrics, an early blueprint of the style and delivery that Murphy would later become synonymous for.
Soul Brother’s anthology focuses on Murphy’s output on Muse Records, the catalogue that contains most of his quintessential material. Whilst it is not branded as his greatest hits, it almost becomes that de facto. Surprisingly there are few compilations of his work so this collection helps to put that right.
Joe Fields, the Muse president, clearly had a lot of faith in Murphy, giving him the opportunity to record 16 albums in 21 years. In his Muse recordings you can hear that he invested heavily in his own ideas and interests, primarily the improvised sung/vocalised versions of hip jazz instrumental classics and covers of a broad range of Bossa Nova/MPB. Murphy’s style had matured since his early recordings (he was 40 when he recorded his first album, “Bridging The Gap” with Muse); his pitch had dropped and vocally he had developed a rich, debonair, cultured sound. The blend of improvised lyrics with vocalese/scat meant that he blurred the line between singing and the use of the voice as an instrument. Murphy had not wanted to be a traditional jazz crooner, although much of his tone and emphasis is informed by that style.
The selection of material and what Murphy does with it are critical. If you take the components of a typical Mark Murphy song and put them in less capable hands you end up with a fairly average pub or club singer fronting a covers band, but he delivers with such panache, such endless class and style that you can’t help but be beguiled by him. The backing arrangements, whilst fairly straight, aim for authenticity and give Murphy the space to extemporise.
Collections, rather than straight reissues, reveal a certain subjectivity on behalf of the compilers and the skill is in getting the balance just right. I like the mix of familiar tracks like “Stolen Moments” with lesser known numbers (for me at least) like “Looking For Another Pure Love” or the funky “Come and Get Me”, incidentally one of the few original songs. The sweet fusion of “Two Kites”, from the album “Brasil Song”, has long been a favourite. Murphy is hands down a better singer than Jobim and gives the track a more intimate feel. “Ding Walls” and “Eleanor Rigby” are tips to the UK market with the former named after Gilles Peterson/Patrick Forge’s jazz dance session, which did more than its fair share to help a new generation discover Murphy’s recordings.
For me “Maiden Voyage” and “Naima” are not amongst the best examples of his work and do not compare favourably to the vocal versions by Jon Lucien and Doug/Jean Carn. That said they do not spoil what is overall a fine collection of Murphy’s artistry.
If you are already a Mark Murphy fan then I am sure that would want to add your own favourites; after all looking back over 16 albums is bound to leave some gaps. Nonetheless this compilation is a great opportunity to spend some more time engaging with his musical legacy. If Murphy’s name is new to you then let this album be the start of many great adventures.