Mark Murphy is a veteran American jazz singer who for a variety of reasons is not well known enough, not just in this country but in his native land, despite a string of Grammy nominations. He played Dublin's Vicar Street some 15 years ago and there was an air of great excitement about the gig, as Murphy is lauded as one of the greatest living singers, among jazz afficionados.
The story goes that when he was introduced to Ella Fitzgerald in London in the 1960s he asked for her autograph. Ella replied, “How can I give you my autograph when you’re as good as I am?” With a gentle charm and a lyrical, adventurous singing style, Murphy has exerted a powerful influence on contemporary jazz singers, notably his fellow American Kurt Elling.
His experimental, almost talkative, intimate approach to the vocal art may mean that he never accrued a bundle of hits or standards to deliver night after night, whether it be in Spokane or Sarasota. He really lives the songs he sings, it has been said, and you know that when you hear him.
The recently-released EP, A Beautiful Friendship: Remembering Shirley Horn perfectly epitomises Murphy's almost conversational quality. His is a playful, flirtatious voice close in your ear, taking you through the deeps and shallows of emotion. It is incredible to think that the singer would have been about 80 when he recorded these songs.
The tracks are four standards, associated with the great singer Shirley Horn, who died in 2005, and for whom Murphy holds great admiration. The songs are as follows: A Beautiful Friendship, written by Donald Kahn and Stanley H Steyn; But Beautiful, from the pens of Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, followed by Cole Porter’s Get Out of Town. The session concludes with Here’s To Life, composed by the team of Artie Butler and Phylis Molinary.
But Beautiful is a tender masterpiece of expression, Here’s To Life is reflective and wistful. The slight struggle to get out the vocal, that air of mild fatigue, the tiny resonant cracks, the smokiness, that voice of experience, it's classic Mark Murphy.
His accompanists include Steve Williams, Shirley Horn’s drummer of 25 years, bassist Curtis Lundy, pianist Alex Minasian and the German trumpeter Till Brönner who plays on Get Out of Town and But Beautiful. “Mark inspires me to play in a way I’ve never played before, “Till Brönner declares. “He can help bring out the ultimate truth about one’s self, and that is the greatest gift of all.”
Born in March 1932 in up-state New York, Murphy was just 25 years old when he was signed to Decca. Through his 57-year career, Murphy has released some 48 albums, many of which are deleted. Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett released about the same number of albums, but both Sinatra and Bennett have often seen bigger sales with just one album than Murphy has with the whole catalogue.
In 2011, he was living in the Lillian Booth Actor’s Home in New Jersey, but was still performing gigs in New York and elsewhere. Much sought after and still taking bookings, the singer was finally commanding fees that he once had been unable to command. “I’ve always been a chance taker," Murphy has declared. “My artistic restlessness has been my curse, but it’s kept me going, because I never got stuck in a rut.”
“As a jazz singer, he probably had the widest range of techniques, scatting, vocalese, even spoken word and poetry recitations, working in every possible style and/or tempo,” writes Will Friedwald in A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers “He is endlessly creative, and he always seems to be working out new ways of different things—new ways to get there from here.”
However, it was his friend, the singer Sheila Jordan who put her finger on Murphy’s peculiar art. “When you’re as creative as Mark is, you tend not to go back to what you did. He might go back to parts of it, but then he improvises on it, and then improvises on the improvisations.”
One of his greatest ever performances however can be found on the 2007 Verve album release, Love Is What Stays, which features the singer collaborating with the aforementioned Till Brönner and others. (The album is no longer available on CD but can be found on itunes and Spotify.)
A particular highlight on that record is Once Upon A Summertime, written by Michel Legrand and Johnny Mercer. It's a track that is regularly played by Carl Corcoran on RTÉ lyric fm’s nightly programme, The Blue of the Night, where this writer first heard it. Once Upon A Summertime is a ballad that wisely chooses to celebrate rather than lament a few cherished moments on the streets of Paris. Electing not to drown its sorrows, the song implies rather than spells out the fact that a love affair can only be remembered.
Once Upon A Summertime has been sung by others, including Astrud Gilberto and Tony Bennett. But Murphy does something different, fitting his astounding delivery within the cathedral of an elaborate, visionary orchestral arrangement. By turning the emotion upon its head, and singing ruefully, almost with an air of ironic detachment, the song becomes a refusal to mourn. His interpretation must be one of the greatest jazz vocal readings ever committed to record. Tune in some night soon to Carl's programme and hear Once Upon A Summertime. In the meantime, get acquainted with this very fine EP.