FEATURE: Nancy Kelly (new album Remembering Mark Murphy)

Publicity Photo: Jazzfoto by John Herr

A new album from vocalist Nancy Kelly burnishes the legend of Mark Murphy, writes Peter Jones:

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The singer Nancy Kelly was a long-time friend of Mark Murphy, and owes much of her musical inspiration to the master jazz vocalist, who died in 2015. This month sees the release of her sixth album, Remembering Mark Murphy, featuring material closely associated with him.

On the surface, Remembering Mark Murphy could be yet another ho-hum jazz tribute album, but it’s far better than that, and there’s more to the story. As well as regarding him as her mentor, Kelly knew Murphy very well, thanks to their shared Irish heritage and both having been born and raised in upstate New York, near Lake Ontario. The Murphy family still own a holiday home in the small lakeside town of Fair Haven, which has also been Kelly’s base for many years.

What makes this new album stand out from more routine tributes is the sheer quality of its arrangements and performances. Kelly has not merely reproduced Murphy’s versions of these tunes, but has given them a sleek, contemporary gloss, aided by some fine musicians, including trumpet legend Randy Brecker, who also played on two seminal Mark Murphy albums.

Having started out as a classical pianist, Kelly was captivated by the jazz and R&B she heard in her later youth, but it was when she first heard albums like Mark Murphy Sings (1975) that her path as a jazz vocalist was set. “I knew I loved these tunes, but at first I couldn’t make sense of them. The songs stuck with me over the years, and eventually I came to appreciate what they meant to me.”

Sensibly, she has treated each one on its merits, in some cases giving them new interpretations, in others sticking fairly closely to their iconic Murphy renditions. Song for the Geese, for example – title track of Murphy’s quirky 1997 album – is given a gentle latin treatment, in contrast with the original’s ballad style. On the other hand, what can you do with a song so ingrained in the Murphy canon as Stolen Moments? “That’s a no-brainer. That’s his signature tune. You really can’t mess with it, so I didn’t. But with something like Song for the Geese, I was always listening for what I could bring to it.”

Nancy Kelly
Publicity photo supplied

Kelly’s most important collaborator in this crowd-funded labour of love is the pianist John DiMartino. All vocalists hope that one day they will meet a piano-player sensitive enough to interpret their ideas harmonically and give their voice its ideal setting. DiMartino, a fellow Mark Murphy fan who also arranged and co-produced the album, does not disappoint, his nuanced contributions often both lush and romantic.

One tune chosen by Kelly is I’m Glad There Is You (from 1972’s Bridging a Gap), which many will know from its Chet Baker version. “I heard Mark’s recording of this song in my very early days. It’s haunted me for most of my singing career,” says Kelly. “There’s something very profound about the way Mark sings it. Body and Soul likewise. Mark found some lyrics to the verse that I’ve never come across anywhere else. He got them from Morgana King, I believe, who Mark knew from when he first went to New York to be a singer.”

Some other tracks were selected for no special reason other than that Kelly liked them, and they helped to provide variety to the album overall. “Every time I went on Mark’s website to see what he was up to, Night Mood would play. It’s the title track of the album he made of songs by Ivan Lins. I decided to do it in an R&B style, which reflects my own roots. And of course, like me, Mark was not a purist. In his early career he made a lot of non-jazz records.”

Peter Jones is the author of This is Hip: the Life of Mark Murphy (Equinox, 2018)

Remembering Mark Murphy is released on 26 April.

LINK: Nancy Kelly website

Categories: Feature/Interview

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