Mark Murphy ‘Mark Murphy Sings’ 3 albums on 2 CD (Fresh Sound) 5/5

mark-murphyOne of jazz’s greatest losses in 2015 was the passing of Mark Murphy, a truly original and innovative singer who combined exquisite phrasing with incredibly witty song writing, updating and modernising the use of the English language in everyday speech, and a theatrical approach to the art of jazz of singing that set him apart from his peers. This re-issue, although dating from 2014, serves as a fitting tribute to Murphy and makes for essential listening on the early part of his career. However, in order to gain a fuller picture on how his singing evolved, a new anthology of his albums on the Muse label is urgently required and one that covers his bop-inflected material through to his love affair with Brazilian music, and his more experimental musings with challenging covers of jazz instrumental classics old and new.
The first album contained within, ‘Playing the Field’, recorded in 1960 is the most conventional in nature and a young Murphy was striving to find his own voice at this early point. Nonetheless, the choice of covers was judicious and displayed a wider knowledge of the Great American songbook. Stylistically, the album is divided into two parts, the first an orchestra-led side one and a stronger trio-based second side that included no less than Jimmy Rowles on piano and Shelly Manne on drums. Thus Murphy tackles Fats Waller’s, ‘Honeysuckle Rose’, in addition to the Gershwin brothers ‘But not for me’. An early example of his mastery of ballads comes in his reading of ‘Heart and Soul’. First albums tend to be something of a hit and miss affair with time needed to adapt to the requirements of the studio, but this was at the very least a competent first effort, even if it broke no major new ground.

However, with the second album recorded in 1961, ‘Rah!’, Mark Murphy had made rapid progress and gained much-needed national exposure with a recording that, for many, remains the definitive Murphy sound (this writer would beg to differ and instead offer up ‘Stolen Moments’ as more reflective of his fully matured voice) and it is indeed a vocal jazz album of some distinction, arranged and conducted by Ernie Wilkins with a fine brass section and musicians of the calibre of Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb and Ray Barretto in the rhythm section. The album cover itself with Murphy in laid back attire with a protest-style placard containing the album title (did Bob Dylan possibly copy this format and use it as the template for his ‘Don’t look back’ film? One wonders) personified the very nature of the jazz hipster and certainly Murphy, along with the late great Eddie Jefferson and, to a lesser extent, Babs Gonzales also, were pioneers of incorporating hip street ‘jive talk’ into the jazz cannon. Miles Davis and John Coltrane (with Bill Evans close in pursuit) had changed the face of jazz with modal music such as ‘Milestones’ and ‘Kind of Blue’ and the title track of the former was chosen by Murphy for what proved to be a storming rendition that swings crazily from start to finish. Adding Latin percussion from Willie Rodriguez, this is arguably the strongest alternative version of Miles’ classic, though the Latin Jazz Quintet and Johnny Lytle’s re-titled ‘Selim’ (‘Miles spelt backwards) would be strong instrumental contenders. Mark Murphy’s elasticity of voice is showcased on a Horace Silver perennial favourite, ‘Doodlin’, and repeatedly throughout his career he would love to juggle with and manipulate words in a way that few writers could manage. Among the singer’s influences, that of Frank Sinatra, is an obvious one and on ‘Green Dolphin Street’ Murphy’s straight ahead treatment compares favourably with any superior crooner.

The second CD focuses on one of Mark Murphy’s strongest, yet underrated albums, ‘That’s how I love the blues!’, recorded in 1962 and with orchestrations arranged and conducted by Al Cohn who does a sterling job. Murphy sounds very much at ease in the studio now and in his choice of material playful too, exploring the various manifestations of the blues in its myriad forms. The title track is a revelation and features such unusual, yet totally endearing phrases such as, ‘Like a Frenchman loves his sous [old French currency], I love the blues’. Horace Silver once again features as a song writer with the incomparable ‘Señor Blues’ a credible alternative to the Bill Henderson original while Murphy was evidently soaking up other singers such as Jimmy Rushing on a straight reading of ‘Going to Chicago Blues’. Aiding proceedings no end was a top studio band that included trumpeter Clark Terry, guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Ben Tucker and percussionist Willie Rodriguez. This album should not be overlooked and, at this period in his career, may actually have been the most cohesive.

As a major bonus we have four extremely hard to find 45s from the Riverside label, with both ‘A’ and ‘B’ sides included that attempted to sell the singer to a wider audience. The strongest and most representative of Murphy to these ears is ‘Why don’t you do right?’ that could easily have featured on any subsequent album while his love of Sinatra is re-emphasized on ‘Fly me to the moon (In other words)’. Both these songs are included on one of the 45s. In general, Mark Murphy’s ability at storytelling would remain undiminished throughout his career with future high point being ‘Stolen Moments’ (1978) and ‘Bop for Kerouac’ (1981). These early sides reveal the potential that existed within and as such they are precious gems that can be listened to over and again with new insights gleaned into Murphy’s craftsmanship.

Tim Stenhouse