Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Fearless Singer

I had planned to begin posting about various individuals who are doing their part to make sure jazz remains a thriving and developing music. This current post focuses on a performer who has done just that for most of his life, changing as the music has changed but never ceasing to be true to himself.

Mark Murphy began as someone who seemed to be out of the Sinatra, Bennett, Damone mold. He appeared on album covers wearing a red and green checked shirt with his arms folded, while leaning on a stool, or in a typical late 1950s style suit while posed on a piano and surrounded by slinky ladies. He was featured on The Steve Allen Show three times. Within a few years the singer morphed into a kind of collegiate hipster, then traveled to England in the 1960s, while the Beatles were leaving it to tour. After spending the rest of the decade in Europe singing, acting, and doing a pilot for a series in which he portrayed Jesus, Mark returned to the USA and began recording for Muse Records. He sang standards, pop covers and originals, then ultimately discovered the unique vocal style that would be his breakthrough. He recorded classics like "Stolen Moments", "Bop for Kerouac" and "Beauty and the Beast" and did gigs at clubs, theatres and festivals. Mark's look kept changing, from Indian cotton shirts, jeans and Afros, then less traditional suits, with his hair styled in a mullet, on to shiny brightly-colored shirts and dress pants or dark suits with turtlenecks, and medium-length hair. As the look changed, the singing became increasingly more adventurous.

Mark had always paid great attention to clear diction and masterful singing, with a little scatting on the side. As time went on, the scatting became more extravagant, with swoops, shifts of pitch, yodels and growls. The songs themselves were transformed with non-traditional harmonies and tempos. The actor in the singer created a sense of drama through careful emphasis as he came to particular sections of the songs, as well as in the way his expressive hands rose and fell during the performance. Mark had no qualms about letting his voice sound a bit harsh and un-pretty, if he felt it fit the particular mood he was trying to get across.

Mark always surrounded himself with equally-wonderful musicians such as sax players Richie Cole and Michael Brecker, trumpeters Randy Brecker, Tom Harrell and Claudio Roditi, and pianists Bill Mays, Benny Green and Lee Musiker. Most recently he has performed with trumpeter Till Bronner on CD and pianist Misha Piatigorsky at live gigs. In each case, Mark has treated these artists as collaborators, rather than just members of the bands accompanying him.

Many younger jazz singers have based their own vocal approaches on Mark's innovations. One in particular, who for the sake of discretion shall remain nameless, has "stolen from the best," as he has sometimes gotten credit for innovations that had been originally created  by the older singer. One thing most of these "musical children" will agree on, however, is that Mark Murphy is still the one who's always ahead, never performing his familiar songs in a safe, routine manner, but always expressing his own truth.

For those who want a profound experience of the legend, click here.

1 comment:

  1. The following comment was sent to my e-mail address and I was asked to post it to my blog, since the writer couldn't so themself:

    I really enjoyed how you gave "voice" to this great singer’s contribution to not only the world of music but to the world at large and, most importantly--and significantly--to our lives.

    A renowned Scandinavian opera singer once described singers as "healers of hearts". It'd been the first time I'd ever heard singers defined so meaningfully, and it gave a sense of profound purpose to the art form that I have never forgotten and have strived to remind myself of and apply to my own work as a professional singer myself.

    By the description of your profile on Mark Murphy, I got the sense that you would also agree that he too is a "healer of hearts"!

    The details you give on the changes of his "look" and wardrobe throughout the years on "album" covers, really fleshed out this iconic figure with the human element. This painted a really palpable image with which I could relate, making him real and accessible to me-- something not so readily achievable with artists of legendary status.

    I especially enjoyed and laughed to learn about his "dues" as an actor early in his professional career--even playing Jesus! Now THAT is one heavy price to pay!

    As well, I appreciate the homage you attribute to Mark Murphy's artistry without shredding "younger jazz singers" (that "shall remain nameless," of course) who've been greatly influenced by his work. Hey, just giving credit where credit is very due! Right? Although, truth be told, great artists--musicians being first among them--often "steal" the very best qualities from each other. It is considered to be the highest compliment one artist can pay another, and it’s all part of the circle in a singer’s growth to finding their own “voice”. As a musician myself, I prefer to think of it as “borrowing”--since it's all borrowed from a cosmic mystery source anyway. I think a "Fearless Singer" like Mark Murphy would agree.

    Thanks for a very good, easy-breezy, enjoyable read! --ecstreet of NYC