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.