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Greg Murphy

A prodigious talent whose keyboard pyrotechnics have ignited the bandstands of such shamanistic figures as Rashied Ali and Tisziji Muñoz, veteran pianist-composer Greg Murphy has been a firebrand on the scene since moving to New York in 1987. On his fourth outing as a leader, the Chicago native showcases a myriad of musical expressions besides the heightened, McCoy-inspired approach that has been his calling card for decades.

With a core group consisting of fiery trumpeter Josh Evans, Dee Dee Bridgewater bassist Eric Wheeler and sensational young drummer Kush Abadey — augmented on different tracks by stellar improvisers Jay Rodriguez on soprano sax, Eric Wyatt and Scott Robert Avidon on tenor saxes, Corey Wilcox on trombone, Raphael Cruz on percussion and Malou Beauvoir on vocals — Murphy explores some appealing pop material on his “A Reason to Smile” and a cover of Seals & Crofts’ ’70s hit “Summer Breeze” while also digging into Afro-Cuban grooves (“Suspended Time”), burning hard bop (“Cedar Salad”), free jazz (“Tsk”) and a swinging blues (Sonny Rollins’ “Solid”) on his Whaling City Sound debut.

“I was playing in pop bands when I got started in Chicago, before I started getting deeply into jazz,” says the pianist-composer, who got a grant to study with Ellis Marsalis in New Orleans during the mid ’80s. “In fact, I wrote ‘A Reason to Smile’ 30 years ago when I was in this group called Lightning Flash Thunder Roar. And I got Malou to help me with the lyrics on this new version of that tune.” Beauvoir delivers supremely soulful vocals on that mellow offering as well as on a re-imaginging of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” which morphs into a 6/4 Afro-Cuban feel midway through. Evans shades Malou’s alluring vocals on muted trumpet throughout their inventive take on this classic bit of Ellingtonia while Cruz provides the appropriate percussive colors to give it that Latin tinge.

“Cedar Salad” is Murphy’s homage to the late, great pianist-composer Cedar Walton. “I actually ran into Cedar in the Village one day and gave him a copy of this piece I had written for him,” the pianist recalls. “My thinking behind this was to emulate the way that Cedar went into the half-step harmonic movement, from major to minor, on his classic tunes ‘Bolivia’ and ‘Ugetsu.’ In this case, it goes from the Bflat minor to the Bmajor to the F#.” Trumpeter Evans and saxophonist Wyatt provide a Messengers-like feel on the front line of this jaunty swinger while Murphy reveals his fluent hard bop chops on his impassioned solo here.

Wyatt, a longtime collaborator of Murphy’s who also happens to be the godson of Sonny Rollins, plays some robust tenor sax on the bluesy Newk vehicle “Solid” while trumpeter Evans is prominently featured on a faithful reading of the hauntingly beautiful Wayne Shorter composition “Fall,” which also has the pianist freely exploring the harmonic fabric of that evocative piece. The core trio of Murphy, Wheeler and Abadey turns in a straightforward reading of Miles Davis’ “Solar,” which is underscored by the young drummer’s briskly swinging touch on the kit. Abadey also provides some gentle brushwork and tasty cymbal colorations on Avidon’s gentle “Leo’s Lullaby” and he fires up Murphy’s modal burner “Expectations,” which features some rapid-fire exchanges of eights with the drummer, trumpeter Evans, soprano saxophonist Rodriguez and tenorist Avidon at the tag. And the drummer’s keen instincts adds to the conversation on the purely improvisational “Tsk.”

“Kush is a phenomenal young cat,” says Murphy. “He really plays beyond his years. He’s played with Wallace Roney and recently he was on the road with Ravi Coltrane. I’ve seen him down at Small’s a lot and he always sounds great. Yeah, he’s a pretty busy cat these days.”

Murphy unleashes with McCoy-esque abandon on his two uptempo workouts, “Expectations” and “No One in Particular,” and he delivers a real-deal son montuno feel on his Afro-Cuban groover “Suspended Time,” which features a pulsating bass solo from Wheeler along with an extended drum flurry at the end by Abadey.

All of Murphy’s experiences — his 20-year tenure in New York with Rashied Ali, his intensive study in New Orleans with Ellis Marsalis, his pop-funk days in Chicago, along with his Latin jazz work in Raphael Cruz’s band — come to bear on Summer Breeze, his most fully self-realized outing to date. — Bill Milkowski

An experienced improviser, composer, arranger and teacher, Greg Murphy has led, directed and performed with various groups around the world for the past three decades. In a 2015 review referencing “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” from Greg’s CD, Blues for Miles, Maxwell Chandler writes: “… not every musician can play the blues. Greg displays an authenticity not in any specific blues-based structure but in an organic soulfulness. There is a power to the performance deriving from simplicity …. Tinged with melancholy but bearable on account of its beauty, it is a rainy day with all the leaves of the trees dripping silvered jewels.” He goes on: “‘Hat Trick’ is another original. It is free jazz not in the genre sense but in the band allowing different components from several genres to meld without concern of adhering to any specific formula …. A dramatic cohesiveness is created not because all the musicians play in unison but because each of the smaller patterns executed within the piece bolster the others.” In another 2015 review of Blues for Miles, Bob Rusch of Cadence Magazine writes “… a strong ensemble [with] some very effective free playing on ‘Free Ur Mind’ and ‘Free Han Solo.'”

Greg began his musical adventures in 1971 when he joined the Ray-Fisk Grammar School Band in Chicago. His classical studies began later that year with Lucia Santini at Roosevelt University. Between 1980 and 1984, he played with the jazz/funk band Lightning Flash Thunder Roar, The University of Illinois at Chicago Big Band, The Northern Illinois University Big Band, and other local Chicago bands.

A jazz study grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1984 gave Greg the opportunity to go to New Orleans and study with the eminent pianist and jazz educator, Ellis Marsalis. He remained there and began recording and performing with The New Orleans Jazz Couriers, Percussion Incorporated, and his own group, The Fusicians. The Percussion Incorporated album, Drum Talk, (Greg’s first recording) was recorded and released in 1987. While living in the crescent city, Greg performed with Donald Harrison, Wynton Marsalis, and countless other great musicians.

Greg moved to New York in 1987 and began what had become a long association with multi-directional drummer, Rashied Ali. Greg performed and recorded with Ali and his various groups throughout Europe, Canada, the United States and beyond, from 1987 until Rashied passed away in 2009.

Throughout his career, Greg has performed in Japan, China and The Philippines with his own trio and other groups. He’s also worked in New York with Ornette Coleman and in France with Carlos Santana and Archie Shepp. In 2012, Greg recorded the theme song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” for the HBO documentary Redemption, which was produced and directed by Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill. Redemption received a 2013 Academy Award nomination for best documentary short.

Greg also performed with Arthur Taylor, Branford Marsalis, Joe Lovano, Grachan Moncur, III, Christian McBride, Flava Flav, Cindy Blackman, Terrence Blanchard, Harry Connick, Jr., Charles McPherson, and James Blood Ulmer, among many others.

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