Mark Murphy R.I.P.

The celebrated singer who gave the UK jazz world so much joy passed away yesterday.

Some random recollections on the passing of Mark Murphy (March 14, 1932 – October 22, 2015).

I still remember like it was yesterday (instead of half my lifetime ago) the trepidation I felt as I travelled to an early (1986/7) Birmingham Jazz gig as a new recruit to their board, to hear for the first time a Male Jazz singer. I had stayed silent when his concert availability was first mooted, knowing nothing of his singing style, and expected yet another sub Sinatra crooner. I knew my Last Poets and Leon Thomas, relating to their righteousness and mysticism, but some white guy with a pick up piano trio?

This was of course Mark Murphy, who passed away on Thursday the 22nd of October at the age of 83, in the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey. It just goes to show how prejudice is a two way street. Instead of judging him by the press pic with the booking details, I should have done my homework. What we heard that night was a soloist of the first order, making harder work of riffing off tunes and famous horn solos by setting his own words to them. We were eased in to the programme with a subtly quirky take on ‘Nature Boy’, but this was followed by a full immersion in to a concoction of tunes themed around Jack Kerouac. This material drew on several Muse label albums of his, still in print I suspect at that time, all worth hearing. San Francisco of the Bop era came to life in a jagged expressionist soundscape. I was hooked.

Vocalese, as this style is known, really calls upon the patience of the improvisor, armed with a turntable and notepad, as they build the picture in sound at the speed of a stop motion animator working in the pre digital era. Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure, Annie Ross and Jon Hendricks pioneered the form, but the leap from Swing to Modern was made by this charming, affable, urban and urbane vocalist. His unique sound was no doubt informed by the New York lifestyle he embraced so wholeheartedly (it was, after all the heart of modern jazz for half a century), whilst maintaining a hidden sexuality. We are on a new page in singing style from his earliest Riverside recordings, albums we saw over here first in Fontana guise, all of which I hoovered up as I spotted them on my travels, as well as those Muses I mentioned. Fine singing is still found in this last decade on recordings made by British label, Gearbox, along with six or seven other projects, mainly collaborations. Sandwiched between these, he developed an affinity for England, moving here for a while in the late 60’s to early 70’s. He retained that fondness for here, letting his local admirers know he wanted them to set up a British fan club.

As I’ve mentioned in social media, I firmly believe the torch has been passed to Kurt Elling in this niche vocalese style, but what greater tribute to his standing could there be than to know that Elling regards him as without peer.

Mark Harrington