A Place For Jazz
September 14, 2007
by Tom Pierce
Some Whisperdome attendees who were familiar with Mark Murphy's unpredictably, ultra-creative approach to a song, may have wondered if this legendary, but highly innovative artist would possibly be too hip for the room. However, his consistently applauded performance proved, as did that last year of one of his many talented disciples, Giacomo Gates, that any such musings underestimated not only the many reasonably accessible aspects of his style, but also the broad tastes and close-listening music appreciation of audiences at A Place For Jazz concerts.
The opening swinging rendition of one of his signature songs, Oliver Nelson's 1961 Stolen Moments (with Murphy's own 1978 lyrics) quickly displayed the essence of dynamic Jazz vocalizing, with his effectively shifting volume, pitch and tempo. Senor Blues by Horace Silver continued in this exciting vein of classic instrumentals set to lyrics, with some of his peerlessly inventive scatting. At the end of this number, Murphy showed his class as a professional by doing something one rarely sees. Although many artists have admired the Whisperdome's world class acoustics, he may have been the first to take the time to get the name of the individual at the audio controls and then publicly acknowledge him - David Wilkinson.
His first set, in addition to inserting yet a third of his well known vocalized versions of Jazz standards, Freddie Hubbard's Red Clay, also captivated the very attentive audience with sensitive and compelling treatments of some alluring and sophisticated ballads. These included I'm Through With Love, Skylark, Michel Legrand's Once Upon a Summertime and Too Late Now, a truly haunting version of the Burton Lane-Alan Lerner gem from his latest CD (Love is What Stays), that was beautifully complemented by the at-times trombone-like muted trumpet of Brian Newman.
On tune after tune, Newman's performance and that of his fellow very strong musicians - flexible pianist Joshua Wolff, bassist Dmitri Kolesnik with a large, clear-toned sound, and drummer Chris Higginbottom, who made interesting use of space, and had a crisp, light touch - each significantly enhanced the concert. All of them had considerable experience with major players, nationally and internationally.
In reflecting on Murphy's handling of these songs, this reviewer was reminded of a consistent observation based on four decades of enjoying his recordings and live events. This is the vocalist's clear love of, and attention to, language - arising out of his work as an actor and poet, as much as his being a singer. This was demonstrated to me, in the way his phrasing accents both the importance of, and his own particular inferences for, MULTIPLE words in a line. He accomplishes this by using a range of nuanced vocal inflections, beyond the conventional devices of merely altering one's lingering and volume on specific words.
For me, Carmen McRae was the only other Jazz vocalist who rivaled Murphy's interpretive ability in this area. One can add to this quality, great admiration for the obvious care he's taken with his vocal instrument that was able to hit (and sustain with full resonance) notes that no 75 year old male singer would be expected to even attempt.
The second set was highlighted by a buoyantly swinging medley of tunes written by or closely associated, jazz-wise, with Miles Davis - All Blues, Summertime, Green Dolphin Street, Bye Bye Blackbird, Autumn Leaves, I Thought About You and Milestones. These songs provided glimpses of his unconventional, but probingly reflective sense of humor and the world around us. They also served to illustrate how his improvised delivery and content would at times, creatively stretch songs, but consistently pull back before venturing out well beyond the musical and lyrical context of the song. This aspect was also exhibited in his readings and singing from his classic 1981 Bop for Kerouac album, that no Mark Murphy concert would be complete without.
All in all, the full range of his many musical and presentation abilities clearly clarified for the near capacity audience (many of whom confessed to not having heard him previously), why he's generally acknowledged as the living Dean of Jazz Singers. This all makes it especially appropriate to salute, first of all, vocalist Perley Rousseau (Sonny & Perley) for initially strongly recommending Mark Murphy's inclusion in this Fall's concert season, and also Tim Coakley, Joe Slomka and others on the A Place For Jazz Advisory committee for positively responding and making his very special appearance in our area possible.
Tom Pierce has had a burning passion for Jazz for over 45 years, initiated and fueled by seeing live in New York City, starting in the early 1960's, virtually every major artist still performing. He's been very happily living in Guilderland the last 5 years, as an active retiree sharing his love of music by writing online reviews for a number of web sites, preparing DVD presentations to various groups, co-Hosting Radio programs showcasing his favorite artists and busily supporting A Place for Jazz and the SwingTime Society in a variety of ways.