CD Review: Orla Murphy – ‘Wonderous Visions’
(GLDRM2735. CD Review by Alison Bentley)
Stevie Wonder-ous visions- a handful of his songs are Real Book staples, but vocalist Orla Murphy has found ten rarely-covered songs from (mostly) the late 60s/early 70s. She’s taken away the lavish production of the originals to reveal their strong bones, arranging them for acoustic piano trio.
Orla Murphy has elements of both modern jazz and 60s/70s soul singers in her dusky voice. She draws out the lyrics with directness and authenticity, and an ability to get to the kernel of each song. Some songs seem more rooted in the blues and gospel tradition. Murphy’s at her most bluesy in I Don’t Know Why (But I Love You), with just Andy Hamill’s earthy bass, all creaking strings and slapped wood. Her voice has a gorgeous lived-in quality, with a little Etta and Dusty, and Wonder’s own soulful phrasing. Seems So Long and Make Sure You’re Sure, songs of uncertain love, are sung with just New Zealander Aron Ottignon’s piano. He has a dramatic gospel-tinged style that complements her sparse bluesiness perfectly. Like Carole King singing So Far Away, there’s a real vulnerability in the voice: ‘there’s a chance that you’re not fooling yourself and me.’ As she gets louder (echoes of Laura Nyro) the piano flourishes high on the keyboard: Carole King meets Oscar Peterson.
Heaven Help Us All (perhaps the best known) begins with voice and bass, building slowly with Richard Barr’s fine funky drumming. The voice sounds astringent, like Abbey Lincoln singing about civil rights: ‘Heaven help the man who kicks the man who has to crawl’, a long way from Wonder’s almost triumphal treatment of the chorus. Ottignon’s beautiful solo sweeps pentatonically upwards with the kind of ecstatic moment Van Morrison brings out in his bands.
Jonathan Gee plays piano on six songs and he’s co-arranged about half the songs. The slower pieces are winsome and warm. All I Do starts with a 60s riff but Gee’s harmonies soon mark it as more modern. The funky bursts of acoustic bass under descending piano chords keep you involved. Gee’s solo is wonderfully angular and lyrical. He’s a sensitive accompanist: you always know he’s there but he never gets in the way of the voice. Murphy sings deeply in Wonder’s range. She’s simplified his melisma but kept some of his slight rasp- it’s very affecting. She sings the slow 6/8 Visions with a Cassandra Wilson-esque authority. There’s sizzling cymbal work from Barr, sweet spread piano chords to give the voice lots of space, and some unexpected modal chords in the corners of the song. Hamill’s harmonica solo is plaintive and Wonder-ish. There’s a special moment as Murphy holds a long note behind Gee’s fragmented phrases: just two notes at first, legato then staccato, like intense doodling. Another Star has a gentle, slow hip hop beat, with a little late Joni in Murphy’s wide vibrato. It’s great to hear her use the higher, more powerful part of her range towards the end. Gee takes his solo a little out of the harmony but never too far, always keeping the feeling. They Won’t Go When I Go has high musical box piano phrases over Murphy’s dark tones that recall Christine Tobin.
The upbeat tracks have tight arrangements that pull the listener forward. Murphy sings Big Brother, a classic 1972 protest song, with real passion: ‘I live in the ghetto,/ You just come to visit me around election time.’ Gee combines funky 60s licks with modern harmonies over Tristan Maillot’s fab drum groove. Too High has a jarring atonal start with dramatic stops to frame the lyrics perfectly: a girl’s drug-fuelled decline.
Murphy’s wrote Timeless (with pianist Steve Lodder), about growing up in Belfast listening to Wonder’s legacy: ‘Stories of joy, love, heartache, sublime melodies,/Injustice of war…exploitation’. Orla Murphy and her superb musicians take us through many styles and moods. The songs are arranged with flair and imagination, and drawing them all together is Murphy’s lovely voice: bluesy, jazzy, smoky with a touching understatement- you just want to keep listening.