Mark Murphy died last night in his sleep following a long illness. He was 83. Murphy’s eagerness to take artistic chances combined with his innate musicianship to make him one of the most interesting singers in jazz. He died at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey. Born in Fulton, New York, in 1932, He sang from the age of four and studied acting at nearby Syracuse University. Following graduation in 1953, he played piano and sang in Syracuse and moved to New York City in 1954. He scuffled as an actor and at day jobs that included managing a donut shop. He made his first album for Decca in 1956.
In a career of nearly six decades, Murphy began with a smooth approach that incorporated not only overall swing feeling but also command of time inside the phrases of songs. As he developed, he made increasing use of the techniques of vocalese and became an idiosyncratic master of scat singing. He made scatting work in settings from standard songs to explorations of advanced material by John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard and Herbie Hancock. Murphy tackled dated songs like “Hard Hearted Hannah” and “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good To You” with the same creative urge to experiment that he applied to songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim and other Brazilian composers. Here’s an excerpt from my notes for the reissue together of his first two albums:
Early on, it was apparent that he had the ability to respect the composer’s and lyricist’s intent for a song while interpreting it from the standpoint of a creative artist whose study and preparation was leavened by spontaneity in performance. In other words, young Mr. Murphy was imbued with the spirit of jazz.
Aside from his clarity of diction, what distinguishes Murphy in these early records—and has ever since—is his grasp of the essentials of rhythm as understood by jazz musicians, and particularly his use of rubato. His time feeling extended through the execution of the slowest performances, and it allowed him to succeed when taking liberties with the meter of a lyric, often giving it an interior swing all its own.
In his more than 40 albums, there are plenty of examples of Murphy’s way with time, lyrics and melodies. Here’s one that caught the ears of listeners and critics when he was barely known. It’s from his 1961 album Rah!
For a detailed obituary and appreciation of Mark Murphy, see Matt Schudel in The Washington Post.