On his new Milestone album, September Ballads,singer Mark Murphy fulfills a long-held ambition: to do an all-ballad session featuring the work of contemporary composers.
"It’s a truism that ballads are a singer’s biggest challenge," says Murphy. "In fact, it’s like you’re doing a small movie on the fly-you’re in it, you’re telling the story, creating the mood and sustaining it. You’ve got nothing to hide behind."
Murphy, with a little help from his arranger/pianist Larry Dunlap and special guests Larry Coryell and Art Farmer, proved himself up to the task in a magnificent program of what Mark calls "new standards."
"Some of these songs are newish," he explains, "and some have been unjustly neglected. Most have been with me a long time. ‘When This Love Affair Is Over,’ for instance, I heard 20 years ago in New York. It was a track on a Peter Allen album, and it just stuck in my mind. And Gary McFarland’s ‘Sack Full of Dreams’-I’ve almost recorded it many times, and finally decided now was the time to do it.
"The Michael Franks tune ‘When She Is Mine,’ I’m amazed no one else has picked up on it, it’s a fantastic song. And Steve Allen’s ‘Spring Is Where You Are’-I used to go on his old show and sing his songs, and that was always my favorite of all the stuff he’d written."
Murphy not only has unerring instincts when it comes to unearthing other people’s material; he’s also a gifted lyricist andcomposer in his own right. The lyrics to Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays’s "September Fifteenth" are Mark’s, and "Sausalito" is a Murphy composition originally written in the 50s, rewritten and recorded in the 60s, and now re-recorded in a brand-new arrangement.
A three-time Grammy nominee with some 30 albums to his credit, Mark Murphy was born into a musical family in Syracuse, New York and raised in nearby Fulton. He sang in the church choir (where his mother and aunt played organ) and began piano lessons at age seven. Opera was the main style of music heard at home, but Mark’s uncle introduced him to pianist Art Tatum’s music and thus altered the course of his life.
In his teens, Mark sang with his brother’s dance band. He’d learned singing by listening to the greats: Nat "King" Cole, June Christy, Anita O’Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan. After studying acting and music at Syracuse University, he moved to New York, appearing with the Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera Company and winning amateur contests at the legendary Apollo Theater, which led to club dates.
In 1957, Murphy signed with Decca and cut two albums with arranger Ralph Burns. He then moved to Los Angeles, where he recorded three LPs for Capitol, the first of which yielded a modest hit (Steve Allen’s "This Could Be the Start of Something").
Back in New York in the early 60s, Mark made Rah and That’s Why I Love the Blues for Riverside, as well as a single ("Fly Me to the Moon") that hit the charts in about a dozen cities across the country in 1963.
In fact, Mark had a single on the charts and had been voted "New Star of the Year" in Down Beat’s 1963 Readers’ Poll shortly before he moved to London, which was to be his base for the next nine years.
"I went back to acting during that time," Mark recalls. "I did some club work and recorded a few English and German albums, but I literally put my jazz book away for almost ten years because nobody wanted to hear that. Then, by about 1972, I was back in the States and Muse Records asked me to start recording for them."
Murphy proceeded to record about an album a year for the label, garnering widespread critical acclaim. Cadence magazine called 1985’s Grammy-nominated Nat "King" Cole Songbook, v. 1 "a brilliant LP by a mature jazz singer [that makes] clear what we mean when we speak of ‘jazz singing.’"
The 1977 Audiophile release Mark Murphy Sings Dorothy Fields and Cy Coleman led the late composer Alec Wilder to remark: "I was quite literally amazed. Mark’s musicianship, range, intonation, diction, inventiveness, and incredible rhythmic sense are all of a piece and all marvelous."
In 1987, Mark signed with Milestone Records and, in celebration of his enduring love for Brazilian music, recorded Night Mood, an album of songs by Ivan Lins on which he was backed by the Brazilian trio Azymuth, alto saxophonist Frank Morgan, and trumpeter Claudio Roditi. A reviewer for the L.A. Reader noted that his "deep feeling for Brazilian music (and Lins’s tunes in particular), his power to express subtle shadings of emotion, and his rich, velvety voice and great range and control, make him the ideal interpreter for Lins’s songs."
A jazz singer’s singer, Murphy has won accolades from the likes of Ella Fitzgerald ("He is my equal"), Peggy Lee, and Sammy Davis, Jr. He utilizes his resonant baritone as an instrument, sometimes lyrical, often vocalizing intricate jazz classics by Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Oliver Nelson, Horace Silver, and others.
Mark Murphy is an international jazz figure who tours Europe several times a year, appearing in clubs, concerts, festivals, and television programs. He was the subject of a TV special in Yugoslavia, Denmark, Sweden, and Britain, and has been seen on PBS stations in this country. Murphy has also played to enthusiastic audiences in Japan and Australia.
A recent Manhattan engagement prompted the New York Times to observe: "[Mark Murphy] is a stubborn iconoclast who projects the risky sense of discovering for the first time the musical components and the lyrical essence of a song in the process of singing it."
September Ballads catalogs some of Murphy’s latest adventures and discoveries in the art of jazz singing.
A sampling of critical reaction to Mark Murphy, on record and on stage:
"Mark Murphy is at the height of his powers and has my vote as the top jazz singer going today....[His] diction, power, clarity, and swing keep him inside a lyric better than any one else today”
—R.C. Smith, Durham (NC) Morning Herald
"A true jazz singer who has never compromised his art...he has an uncanny knack for searching out a challenge in his music.”
"It is a simple fact that Mark Murphy sings swing, in which respect he must now stand almost alone among male vocalists.... It takes a singer of [his] caliber to remind us that the song itself is merely a vessel through which a myriad of different fluids may readily pass.”
—Russell Lack, Wire Magazine
"Murphy’s sophisticated command of harmony lets him take adventurous chances with the slow songs [on Night Mood], while his impeccable taste allows him to present a coherent and unified melodic line and dramatic story in each song, no matter how convoluted the melody.”
—George Kanzler, Newark Star-Ledger
"There are many singers of jazz songs but few genuine jazz singers. Betty Carter, Eddie Jefferson, Mel Torme and Joe Williams are included in this select group. Add to this list the name of Mark Murphy.”
—Ernie Sanstosuosso, Boston Globe