Mark Murphy: Always the Beat Generation

Mark Murphy image 0
Ira Launiala

Mark Murphy

Dressed entirely in black, jazz’s eternal hipster Mark Murphy slumps into a thick upholstered chair in the green room of the North Beach club Jazz at Pearl’s, San Francisco’s leading spot for the music. He looks exhausted, and his back is aching after his second 90-minute set has ended well after midnight, but when he talks about his new Verve album, Once to Every Heart, Murphy’s face gleams like the huge rectangular tourmaline ring he wears on his right pinkie. In a career that has waxed and waned with an almost tidal regularity over the past half century, the 73-year-old vocalist has delivered a breathtaking valedictory statement. Working with the cool-toned German trumpeter Till Bronner, Murphy interprets a dozen ballads with such world-weary wisdom and soul that it’s like taking a guided tour through the treacherous shoals of the human heart. “I love to tell stories,” Murphy says. “Warning people of the pitfalls. They will happen, baby, but you will survive.”

Survival has been a hallmark of Murphy’s career. Just when it’s looked like he’s been put out to pasture by the perennially bleak prospects for male jazz singers, he emerges with a new project that demands attention. San Francisco is where it all started for the Syracuse, N.Y., native, when he landed his first major gig opening for Anita O’Day in 1954. He made his recording debut for Milt Gabler on Decca a couple years later, but his utterly original style only emerged in the early 1960s on his two classic albums for Riverside, Rah and That’s How I Love the Blues!

Like with so many other jazz artists, Murphy’s gigs evaporated in the face of the British Invasion, so he reversed the cultural flow and spent a decade in Europe, eventually settling in London, where he worked as an actor in TV and stage productions. Murphy returned to the U.S. in the mid-’70s and began recording a series of excellent albums for Muse such as Stolen Moments and Bop for Kerouac, which won him a new following and regular work on the road. In the 1990s, he became a sensation on the European club circuit and at the same time established himself as a gifted educator through his work as the Jazz Vocal Chair at the University of Graz in Austria. “I have had a career of sudden left turns,” Murphy says. “I’ve had to, because the bases have always been loaded. I’ve had to make the best out of the least, you might say.”

In recent years he’s been pleasingly prolific, recording a series of inspired tribute albums for HighNote while touring widely alongside Jon Hendricks, Kevin Mahogany and Kurt Elling as part of the Four Brothers showcase. At a time when his influence has never been greater–it’s impossible to imagine the careers of Elling or Curtis Stiegers without Murphy–the well-traveled veteran has offered Once to Every Heart, a spare, unvarnished statement that is once again edging him into the limelight. The session was instigated by Bronner, who had coaxed Murphy into contributing a vocal and cowriting a song on his 2002 album, Blue Eyed Soul, for Verve in Europe. Afterward, Bronner invited Murphy and pianist Frank Chastenier to hang out with him in his Berlin home studio, and the relaxed atmosphere yielded ballad interpretations so emotionally resonant that jazz writer James Gavin compares the effort to Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin. Murphy’s voice is in far better shape than was Lady Day’s, and Nan Schwartz’s lithe, understated string arrangements provide a wonderfully sensual counterpoint to Murphy’s gruff baritone.

Bronner notes that Murphy’s voice has always elicited strong reactions, with partisans who hear genius and detractors who dismiss his idiosyncratic phrasing and unpredictable interval leaps. “Mark gives every single a song a different approach, a new point of view,” Bronner says from his home in Berlin. “Young singers could really learn a lot listening to him. One thing that was an advantage, we were able to write the strings to what we had. We could respond a really honest, spontaneous performance by one of the greatest singers in jazz, and we could add what we liked afterwards.”

For Murphy, it was the relaxed atmosphere that Bronner created that allowed him to dig so deeply into the music. “I don’t ever want to record any other way,” Murphy says. “We didn’t set out to do a ballad album. Till plays them so naturally and so persuasively that you can’t help but go with it. I’d like to make a couple more records like that and see where it leads us.”