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Saturday, 22 September 2018 15:37

This Is Hip, The Life of Mark Murphy - Peter Jones

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Engaging biography of innovative US jazz singer, Mark Murphy.

London-based jazz singer, Peter Jones, has produced a fine biography of fellow singer, Mark Murphy, who passed away in October 2015. This Is Hip draws on interviews with family, friends and fellow musicians, long-standing Murphy fanzine, Mark’s Times, as well as gig and album reviews. 

A timid child, Murphy had a difficult relationship with his father, who thrived on the outdoor life, and had little time for his son in his formative years. Ironically, Murphy inherited his father’s voice, and it was only when he recorded his first album that his father started to show any real interest in his son’s development. But just one year later, his father was dead, an apparent suicide.

Murphy’s singing career was slow to take off. Initially he seemed drawn to a number of different styles, and struggled to find a real voice of his own. And then, as he started to develop a more clearly identifiable technique, he seemed unwilling to settle, moving from East Coast to West, the US to Europe, and then back again; an itinerant gypsy lifestyle than he maintained, even in his later years.

Peter Jones makes clear that Murphy was often his own worst enemy. He rejected consumerism, and refused to compromise his art in order to achieve mainstream success. His recorded output was also uneven; he had a tendency to sing like an instrumentalist, sometimes cramming too much technique into one song, and overlooking the meaning of the words he was singing, draining the song of all emotion. On his debut at Ronnie Scott’s, noted critic Benny Green, “admiration for the vocal gymnastics was always tempered by the regret that he was reducing the words too often to mere sounds.”

Murphy really came into his own in the 1970s, in the late summer of his long career, and in the 1980s he gained wider recognition thanks to the support of new fans like Gilles Peterson. Even then, his recorded output rarely captured the brilliance of his live performances.

Jones does a fantastic job of piecing together Murphy’s life story, painting a fascinating picture of a unique spirit, a man who embodied jazz, and could improvise with the best instrumentalists – but perhaps as a consequence, blurred the lines too much for some listeners, who thought he detracted from the lyrics, and hence the meaning of the song itself.

Murphy is often regarded as a singer’s singer, and the high regard in which he was held by other singers, such as Sheila Jordan, demonstrates he was certainly that. But Jones makes a strong case for suggesting he deserves far wider recognition. Even if, like me, you find Murphy’s mannerisms too much to handle on occasion, you’ll still find yourself checking out his finest recordings, and looking at his music in a fresh light – which is what a good music biography should do.

Jones is an excellent writer, and This Is Hip is an easy an engaging read. The fact that the author is a singer himself adds additional credibility, particularly in the Appendices, which address Murphy’s style and teaching. Overall, this book is highly recommended.


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