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Mark Murphy: Pop Structure with Jazz Freedom

Singer/songwriter and music-school director talks about his unusual career

Singer and guitarist Mark Murphy
Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Mark Murphy

I initially reached out to the 47-year-old guitarist and singer Mark Murphy for one reason and one reason only, and that was to ask a single question: How could you use the name of one of the most acclaimed and influential jazz singers of the last three decades, even if it’s your given name? See, we had received a press release about the younger Mark’s latest album Hiding Place and it struck me, and perhaps others in the very insular jazz community, to wonder why he’d soldier on with his birth name in the same field in which the first Mark Murphy, who died in 2015, loomed so large. It set me on a path to write a whimsical column on jazz name-doppelgangers that had been fermenting over the years, having already seen so many others (Bill Evans, Avishai Cohen, Marcus Miller, and so on). You can read that tongue-in-cheek column here.

However, in the course of deconstructing this complicated situation, I came to see that this Mark Murphy was not trying to cash in on the other Mark Murphy’s legacy, but was simply on a path to be his own Mark Murphy—one who doesn’t scat, doesn’t always swing, and as far as we know, doesn’t wear a pretty awful wig (sorry, but it’s true). Instead, this Mark Murphy plays acoustic guitar, sings his own songs as well as surprising covers by contemporary pop songwriters, collaborates with creative jazz musicians (like Gilad Hekselman, Jonathan Kreisberg, Dayna Stephens, Jeff Ballard, and others), and is influenced more by the great singer/songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s than by the jazz-pop singers to whom he’s often compared, like Kenny Rankin and Michael Franks. Best of all, his four albums are uniformly excellent. Did I mention that he runs a large music school in South Orange, New Jersey, that reaches hundreds of students and employs dozens of professional musicians as teachers? All of that is a better story than sharing a name with a late great jazz singer.

This Mark Murphy was born in Canada but raised in the suburbs of Boston. His initial entry into playing music came the same way so many of us were introduced to it: the demonstration of instruments in elementary school. When the tenor saxophone was shown to Murphy in the fifth grade, he was hooked. “I loved it,” he recalls. “I remember my Dad, who played in band in middle school and high school, went home to Canada and brought back a tenor sax. That was my first foray into music.”

Later, the pull of what he was hearing all around him had an effect on his instrumental interests. It was 1985: the time of MTV, Rush, Trevor Rabin-era Yes, the Police, and that bright compressed guitar sound. “It wasn’t until eighth grade that I said, ‘I want a guitar, an electric guitar,’” Murphy recounts. “Which is funny because I primarily play acoustic guitar now. My parents tried to push it off, but eventually they knew I wasn’t going to stop. It was probably the best Christmas I ever had when I got my first Walkman, a Rush cassette tape, that electric guitar, and a small amplifier. Just a cheap knockoff of a Fender Strat with an amp that sounded like a busted AM radio. I didn’t care. I was so happy.”

Like many a young aspiring guitar hero, he took lessons at the local music store, which in many ways shaped his future life, for better and for worse. Somehow Murphy kept up a double life of sorts, with tenor sax at school and electric guitar at home. When it came time to choose a college, he looked to the University of Miami, which not only had a growing jazz program thanks in large part to Will Lee, Sr., but also had produced perhaps his favorite guitarist at that time, Pat Metheny. “I was really a Pat guy,” Murphy says. “He was one of the most important musicians for me. Those great albums like Still Life (Talking) were coming out at that time in the late ’80s and my ears were just starting to open to music. I loved it. It has all the beauty and melodic nature of pop music with Brazilian rhythms and the improvisation.”

His family was less enthralled with his choice of Miami, given the popularity of a certain TV show celebrating sex, drugs, and drug enforcement. In truth, the music in Miami Vice was very much in tune with what Murphy was digging, with its theme by Jan Hammer and background music by many ’80s greats, including Phil Collins and Mark Knopfler. Nonetheless, under anxious parental pressure, he went off to Syracuse for his first year before transferring to Miami to study saxophone. “Sure, it was known as a party school, but it was also a great music program,” Murphy says about UM. “It was a nice time to be down there. In hindsight, I kinda wish I’d gone for guitar because once I got to New York, all I wanted to do was play guitar.”

After graduating in the winter of 1994, Murphy came to New York City, where he’d gotten a job working for PolyGram Records in the business affairs department. He arrived as a young businessman with a creative musician hidden inside. “That was how I was able to come to New York,” he explains. “I had never lived in New York. I had been to New York once in my life. I’m a pretty practical person and that was hard-wired in me.” While working that day job, he began playing out as an acoustic singer/songwriter and guitarist at clubs like the Living Room and the Bitter End. It was as much a struggle creatively as it was professionally. “I just decided that I wanted to write songs but I had no idea how to do any of that,” he says. “Schools have embraced that now but in the mid-’90s there was none of that at the university level, at least not where I was.” He spent several years writing, as he describes it, “bad song after bad song.” But it was the beginning of his evolution as a professional musician.

He eventually moved out to Hoboken and, after three years at PolyGram, he quit to do music full-time. “It wasn’t for me,” he says about his stint on the inside of the music business. “I started teaching a few people guitar. I enjoyed seeing people progress. I enjoyed getting paid for something that I actually liked to do. I started teaching at guitar shops around the area, while I was writing and playing.” But he could quickly see that freelance teaching was only a little better economically than playing gigs. He decided he needed to learn some more entrepreneurial skills and went for an MBA at Lehigh University in Allentown, Pa. “I had just turned 30,” he recalls. “It was tough but I learned so much in areas that I hadn’t studied before. I actually got hired out of business school and worked at a job where I had to wear a shirt and tie for nine months before I couldn’t take it anymore.”

Heading back to New Jersey, he decided to combine those new business skills with something he loved to do—teaching music—by founding Mark Murphy’s Music in 2003 in a South Orange, N.J. storefront. “It happened so fast. I borrowed a little money and we opened the place and the first day there were no students and no teachers, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh God, I made the biggest mistake of my life.’ But you get up and you go in every day, and you meet people, and we grew it, organically.” The business did indeed grow, and was up to more than 600 students per week with a faculty of 30 plus professional musicians pre-COVID. The school even has its own recording studio. In developing the program, Murphy learned from those early lessons he took at his local music store in suburban Boston. “I wanted it to be like nothing else that I had seen before,” he explains. “When I started out I took lessons from grumpy old jazz guys. I want to provide a different experience.”

Inside Mark Murphy’s Music school

Due to the evolution of technology and culture, teaching has changed—and so have the students. Although Murphy and his staff have some adult learners, most of their students are under 21, and that’s forced them to adapt their  approach. “It used to be when young kids came in who wanted to learn how to play guitar, we’d ask them what they want to learn: Green Day? Or Nirvana?” Murphy says, laughing. “There was a point of reference. Nowadays they come in and they don’t have that. I think our job has gotten that much more important because we have to introduce the Beatles or Nirvana to them. They’re watching YouTube videos. They’ll say they want to learn this tune from a cartoon. Okay, we can start there and eventually we’ll get to ‘Day Tripper.’ We’ve been having a lot of fun and success with it. It’s a lot of work and a lot of hours, but it’s worth it.” 

Interestingly, Murphy himself still takes lessons, mostly for vocals, from teachers like Roseanna Vitro and Kate McGarry, both of whom he raves about as instructors. “I think it’s important to be developing yourself,” he says of his own continuing education. “Whenever you take lessons as an adult, you find that you’ll channel [what you’ve learned] into the lessons you give.”

Eventually Murphy eased back into his own career as a singer/songwriter, and in 2007 started working on his debut album To Find You There, featuring all original compositions. “That first album was like getting a master’s degree in making a record,” he says. “The players are incredible [Jonathan Kreisberg, Jeff Ballard, Ben Allison, Aaron Parks, Maria Neckam], but I think about how green I was when I was making that record compared to years later when I started to be more comfortable in the studio. I was so timid and even afraid of it. I knew I wanted those specific players, but it feels like my Double-A ball record.” He would end up re-recording some of the songs from his “minor league” years on more recent albums. Despite his dismissal of his initial recording efforts, To Find You There has a very specific sound and the production well supports his well-written compositions.

Excited with the finished product in 2008, he started sending it around to people he knew as well as to a distributor in Europe, while deciding how to really release it. He got a call from a well-known jazz label, who told him that they had received a copy of the album and wanted to release it. “I got the call from that label and I was so excited. I go in and they look at me like, ‘Who are you?’ And I said, ‘I’m the guy you called—this is my record.’ Clearly they were expecting the older Mark Murphy, which meant that they didn’t listen to it. It was the biggest gut-punch. Then they said, ‘We’re still going to put it out.’ Two days later, they emailed me and asked, ‘Did you put it into some distribution network in Europe?’  I said, ‘Yes, but I can take it out.’ They said, ‘No, we can’t release it then.’” In his initial eagerness to share the recording with the world, he inadvertently had blown an opportunity for wider distribution. The album was essentially dead in the water and Murphy let the project languish, while he turned back to focus on his music school.

By the time he got back to recording his second album, 2015’s Slip Away, Murphy had been fine-tuning his craft and collaborating with players like Dayna Stephens, Jon Cowherd, Chris Morrissey, and Gilad Hekselman. That album featured a smattering of clever originals alongside covers of songwriters from the Golden Era of rock, such as Randy Newman (“Dayton, Ohio – 1903”), Neil Young (“Tell Me Why”), Bob Dylan (“Boots of Spanish Leather”), and Paul McCartney (“Waterfalls”). Those choices were not random. Murphy is a self-described vinyl geek and music lover with broad and eclectic tastes. He’s as enthused about those ’60s and ’70s artists as he is about ’80s and even contemporary rock and pop acts, with a keen ear for melody.

“I derive so much pleasure from sitting down and listening to a record and lose myself to whatever I’m hearing,” Murphy says. “Some songs stick to you. I think the most important thing about arranging a tune is about the melody and lyrics. I don’t want to just recreate the tune, where you overreach. Sometimes jazz people over-reharmonize it. I have no interest in making the music complicated. The performance shouldn’t overtake the music.”

Cover of Mark Murphy’s Slip Away album

Indeed, Murphy delivers the material in a smooth and even languid vocal style, made more compelling by the contributions of those creative jazz players who know their way around popular music. “I’m coming toward them because I’m attracted to their tone, their aesthetic,” he explains. “For me, at the heart of it, the records I want to continue to make are ones that you don’t have to be a musician to enjoy. I want these musicians to provide their sound and their touch. It’s like going to a box and picking out your favorite colors. These would be the colors I’d pick. It’s a nice place to be in.”

His third album, Pocketful of Rainbows (2018), continued in that same vein of mixing surprising covers with clever originals. Again he collaborated with Ballard, Stephens, Morrissey, Cowherd, Hekselman, Neckam, and Colin Stranahan, as well as roots-rock and jazz legend Tony Scherr. Murphy had established a template of sorts for his albums, integrating material both original and cover into a palette informed by both jazz and pop.

On his fourth and latest album, Hiding Place, Murphy covers Lennon-McCartney, Sting, and Young with his usual collaborators. “I love great songwriting, great lyrics, great harmony, and I love feeling something,” he says. “I love the structure of pop music, but I also love the freedom of jazz. Combining those things, [giving] the listener the complete structure of a great pop song with that freedom, it can be magical. All the things I’ve learned as a musician, all the things I’ve studied, all the things I teach, all go into a box far away from me when that process happens.” Murphy balances the push-pull of pop and jazz quite well, in much the same way that sophisticated pop artists like Sting, Paul Simon, and Bruce Hornsby have managed to present their music using jazz players in their bands.

However, as his albums made their way in the world, Murphy found that he was frequently the subject of surprising comparisons: “After we put out Slip Away, I started to get reviews saying that I sounded like or was influenced by Michael Franks. I had never even heard him before. I went and bought a bunch of his records. I wasn’t influenced by those albums, but I do like them.” It was the same with Kenny Rankin, whom Murphy now admires but from whom he didn’t borrow anything, despite some sonic and stylistic similarities.

Then there’s the comparison, in name only, to that other Mark Murphy. When did he first get a sense that there could be an issue of identity? “My first memory of that is getting to New York in the mid-’90s. I was dropping off cassette tapes at these clubs and then following up on Tuesday from 1 to 5 p.m. when the booker was there. I call for Ken at the Bitter End and this guy answers the phone, super-gruff and low, ‘Hello?’ I say, ‘I’m calling for Ken.’ And he continues in that gruff tone, ‘Well, who is it?’ I say, ‘It’s Mark Murphy.’ And he says, in an angelic voice at least two octaves higher, ‘The jazz singer?’ I said, ‘No.’ Then he went back to the low gruff voice: ‘Hold on.’ That was my first taste of it.”

However, that encounter, and others like it, never made him feel the need to change his name. “It wasn’t like I was a jazz singer doing standards. I mean, if I was a Kurt Elling-style singer or a pure jazz singer, then it would be different.” Did he consider throwing in a middle initial? “I considered it, but I’m not an initial guy,” he answers, laughing. “I’m not that fancy. I’m just Mark.” Since that first album in 2008, which had no photos on the cover, Murphy has been careful to put his face on the cover of his albums.

Unfortunately, some folks are still thrown off, particularly by that first record. “If you look up the first album on Amazon, there are scathing reviews,” Murphy notes. “It really only circulates in used markets, so people were charging a lot of money for it, and I think diehard Mark Murphy fans were buying it and were angry that it wasn’t him.” Clearly a combination of limited supply with very high, albeit mistaken, demand can lead to emotions running high. “I got an angry Facebook message at two in the morning from some lady really laying into me [about disrespecting the original Mark Murphy] and ended with ‘Stolen Moments Forever!’” 

This Mark Murphy takes all that online flaming with a certain aplomb. After all, he won’t be singing vocalese anytime soon. He’s quietly dogged in pushing ahead to forge his own path musically and professionally, all while balancing performance with education: “It’s been a long process to get to that point where I can produce things that sound like me.”

On Nov. 5, Murphy will perform a socially distanced concert at SOPAC in South Orange, N.J. The show, which also features Dayna Stephens, Larry Grenadier, and Jonathan Kreisberg, will be streamed as part of the SOPAC Session series. Learn more here.