10 Tracks I Can't Do Without

10 tracks by Mark Murphy I Can’t Do Without… by Peter Jones

In our series in which musicians do a “deep dive” into the music of their inspirations, Peter Jones (*) writes about ten of his favourite tracks by singer Mark Murphy (1932-2015), distilled from nearly 50 albums’ worth of material:

1. Señor Blues(‘That’s How I Love The Blues!’, USA, 1963)

After unsuccessful stints with Decca and Capital, Mark Murphy found a more comfortable home at the jazz specialist label Riverside Records. This is a Horace Silver tune with an undulating 12/8 Afro-Cuban beat, and it became a staple of Mark’s live performances. He delivers an intimate, confidential vocal, underpinned by doubled bass and piano ostinato, with an all-brass instrumental line-up. There’s a pleasing lightness of touch here, and Al Cohn’s arrangements are particularly sensitive to the quality of Mark’s voice.

2. Why and How (‘Midnight Mood’, Germany, 1968)

A soul-jazz rare groove number beloved of Gilles Peterson, who turned it into a dance floor smash in the 1980s. It was actually recorded in Köln in 1967 with members of the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band, including Ronnie Scott, Jimmy Deuchar, Sahib Shihab and Jimmy Woode. Mark was living in London at the time. The groovy backbeat – yes, with cowbell! – plus the great horn backings speak of the Swinging Sixties, and no one was more swinging than Mark. He’s in devastatingly fine voice, playing the kind of material he loved and knew well. He used to say his true voice didn’t emerge until he was 40, i.e. at around the time he returned to the US. But that voice is already here.

3. I’m Glad There is You (‘Bridging a Gap’, USA, 1973)

By the time he returned to the States after a decade in Europe, Mark’s musical outlook had broadened to encompass pop, rock, folk and latin styles. Even with jazz standards like I’m Glad There is You, he would take bold liberties in his arrangements. On the long verse intro to this partially reharmonized version of Jimmy Dorsey’s tune, he is backed only by Sam Brown’s reverberating guitar. The rest of the band comes in halfway through the verse, with ominously gurgling organ, and a passionate vocal from Mark. The tune fades out slowly, with a dark, Phrygian mode guitar solo over ghostly midnight chords. Is it jazz? Is it rock? In his sleeve notes Down Beat editor Dan Morgenstern ties himself up in knots over this sterile and much-asked pointless question. Who cares? It’s wonderful.

4. Naima (‘Mark Murphy Sings’, USA, 1975)

Mark Murphy’s career was strewn with banana skins. One of them was the terrible album covers, the worst of which was ‘Mark Murphy Sings’, depicting a Marigold rubber glove in an abstract landscape. It effectively disguises one of the greatest jazz vocal albums in history. Naima is a spine-chiller, with spooky organ and blaring horns, but the killer is David Sanborn’s alto saxophone, piping like an ancient ram’s horn. Mark wrote the lyrics, and his voice captures something timeless and incantatory about Coltrane’s original, which sounds almost tame compared to this.

5. Farmer’s Market (‘Stolen Moments’, USA, 1978)

Art Farmer wrote the tune and Annie Ross wrote the bonkers vocalese lyrics, but Mark Murphy was the one who really nailed it, rendering Ross’s tongue-twisters effortlessly despite the suicidal tempo. The studio recording isn’t available on YouTube any more, but this TV rendition from 1981 with Bill Mays on piano should be enough to scare the pants off any singer thinking of trying it. It took me three months to learn, and it still scares me.

6. Since I Fell For You– ‘The Dream’, Austria, recorded 1983, released 1995)

I love to sing this terrific Buddy Johnson r&b ballad. Mark’s version was recorded with the Dutch Metropol Orkest, with whom he worked regularly on the radio during his frequent trips to Europe over a period of 24 years. Arranger Rob Pronk gives it a soft, romantic treatment. Mark always went to the trouble of restoring forgotten verses to songs, and this one is a cracker, delaying the start of the tune proper until it finally hits its 12/8 stride. The piano tinkles on a bed of strings, and Mark repeats the sad lines “For those who give love, and never get love…” on the fade.

7. Living Room (‘Living Room’, USA, 1986)

One of the hippest things Mark ever recorded, Living Room is a sleek, finger-snappin’ Abbey Lincoln/Max Roach tune that shows how great Mark was at simply riding the beat and inserting little syncopations of his own. The track features David Braham’s organ and fills from Gerry Niewood’s tenor, with cool solos from each, enlivened by Larry Killian’s congas. Mark produced the album along with Braham, who plays the bass part too, and the legendary Grady Tate is on drums. It was another duff album sleeve, featuring a slightly out of focus photo taken by Mark’s partner Eddie. Someone also thought it was a great idea to release it on green translucent vinyl.

8. Ceora Lives (‘What a Way to Go’, USA, 1991)

Keyboardist Larry Fallon produced this version of the sweet and joyful 1965 Lee Morgan bossa. It has been slightly funked up, but otherwise stays faithful to the original, with some warm albeit slightly ersatz synthesised strings and Mark’s own lyrics. The deep reverb places it all in the middle distance, and this, together with two percussionists and a drummer, give it a Brazilian jungle-like vibe. Chris Parker, who a couple of years later played on Donald Fagen’s Kamakiriad, is on drums.

9. In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee (‘Links’, USA, 2001)

A novelty song popularized by Dizzy Gillespie, In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee is so mad, only Mark Murphy could pull it off convincingly as a vocal number. Pianist Mary Lou Williams wrote the brilliant angular melody around 1949, Milt Orent provided the nonsense lyrics, and in the context, Mark’s deranged scatting is spot-on. Allen Mezquida (alto saxophone) and Dave Ballou (trumpet) restore some sort of order with their solos.

10. Our Game (‘Once to Every Heart’, Germany, recorded 2002, released 2005)

I was listening to Jazz FM at home one evening in October 2015 when I heard that Mark had died. What a bummer, I thought: I never did get to hear him perform live. Then the station played this song, and I had to stop what I was doing and simply listen. It begins with a flamenco-like flourish (an Fmaj7 with a flatted 5th, or sharp 11th) and trumpeter/producer Till Brönner plays a full chorus before Mark begins to sing. From then until the coda, with its delicate, shimmering strings and faintly warbling flutes, it cast a spell that has never left me. The radio station continued to play the track over the week that followed. I’d loved the Mark Murphy tracks I’d heard previously – classics like Stolen Moments and Milestones – but now I was gripped by a desire to learn more about him. But there was no book – in fact, very little information at all – and not long afterwards I decided that if no one else was going to do it, I would just have to write the book myself.

LINKS: Peter Jones’s website

(*) This is Hip: the Life of Mark Murphy by Peter Jones is published by Equinox.

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