Mark Murphy: Some Time Ago

Mark Murphy is arguably the most influential jazz singer of his generation, not only as an artistic inspiration for younger performers but as a teacher, cheerleader and guest artist on the recordings of emerging vocalists. In many ways, he’s an excellent role model-restlessly creative, unwilling to compromise, constantly seeking new artistic challenges. His finest recordings, such as 1981’s extraordinary Bop for Kerouac, are jazz milestones, ingeniously conceived and brilliantly executed. But there are downsides to Murphy’s music, notably some grating mannerisms that diminish his work. At times, he tends to bray instead of sing, slur lyrics rather than articulate them and lapse into self-indulgent displays of terminal hipness. When these tendencies converge, as on the 1997 Song for the Geese, with its smarmy, loungy crooning and soupy new-age vocal choir, the result is quite resistible. Some Time Ago, Murphy’s 32nd album, is one of his finest efforts. He’s in excellent voice and accompanied by a quintet of first-rate musicians (all allotted generous solo space), arranged by the splendid pianist Lee Musiker. As always, Murphy has assembled a fresh, exacting repertoire, this time with an emphasis on compositions by jazz instrumentalists, including Tadd Dameron, Jimmy Rowles, Oscar Pettiford, James Williams and Cedar Walton. In a closing medley that combines the ballad standards “Why Was I Born” (with the seldom-performed verse sung a cappella) and “I’m a Fool to Want You,” Murphy achieves an expressive breakthrough, communicating emotion with a simplicity and directness he’s never before achieved on record.