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Mark Murphy: Once to Every Heart

Hyperbolic as it may sound, I’d argue that Mark Murphy is incapable of making a bad album. In a recording career that spans five decades (next year marks the golden anniversary of his Decca debut, Meet Mark Murphy), nearly 50 discs and more than a dozen labels, the long-reigning king of vocal hipsterism has yet to deliver anything less than ingenious. Now at 73, when most singers have been reduced to a pale reflection of their former vibrant selves, Murphy reaches remarkable new heights (or perhaps depths is more accurate, given the album’s quietly contemplative moodiness) with his Verve debut.

Born out of Murphy’s understandable admiration for eerily Chet Baker-esque German trumpeter (and sometime vocalist) Till Bronner, Once to Every Heart began taking shape three years ago with no set play list, no blueprint: just singer and accompanists (Bronner on trumpet and flugelhorn plus pianist Frank Chastenier) in a Berlin studio. Acoustic bass, courtesy of Christian Von Kaphengst, and orchestral strings (under the direction of concertmaster Joris Bartsch Buhle) were subsequently added to six tracks. How stunning are the results? Suffice it to say that I consider this, in a year crowded with laudable releases, the single finest jazz-vocal album of 2005.

Murphy also surfaces on Chasin’ the Jazz Gone By, the Five Corners Quintet’s keenly intelligent homage to masters of the ’50s and ’60s. Murphy contributes to three tracks, including a spoken word overlay on “Jamming With Mr. Hoagland” that’s like a gin-soaked rag set atop red-hot coals, and a haunting, hypnotic reworking of his early career highlight, “This Could Be the Start of Something Big.” But to talk only about Murphy would be a disservice to the intense degree of imagination that pervades the entire disc. Celebratory without being derivative, the quintet evokes the spirits of Stan Kenton, Dave Brubeck, Cal Tjader and Stan Getz while blending Cuban fire, Brazilian fever and West Coast ice-coolness. Best retro-blurring moment: when a funk-rock groove worthy of Archie Bell is welded to the thunder of a Buddy Rich-esque big band sound on “Unsquare Bossa.”

Originally Published