Murphy pushes envelope with his vocal pyrotechnics

Special to The Times

Writing a review of a Mark Murphy performance inevitably raises the question of why this extraordinary vocal artist has never really crossed over to the wider music audience. Despite a five-decade history in which he has performed with an all-star catalog of jazz artists, released more than 40 albums, received six Grammy nominations and repeatedly been selected as Down Beat magazine's Male Jazz Vocalist of the Year, Murphy's greatest acknowledgment has come from other performers and a relatively small but fiercely loyal fan base.

On Wednesday night at the Jazz Bakery, working with pianist Tom Garvin's trio (bassist Tom Warrington and drummer David Rokeach), Murphy underscored the enigma of his relatively low visibility by kicking off his set with a rhythmically charged romp through several standards.

Typically, his renderings included an entire catalog of vocal sounds, falsetto head tones, chesty growls strung throughout variations that virtually reinvented each of the songs. All of it, from quick starts to occasional vocal cadenza finishes, was offered with the extraordinary self-confidence of an artist who continues, at 70, to insist upon stretching the envelope of his music.

By the middle of his set, however, Murphy nearly hit the opening-night wall that looms before so many performers, sounding distracted, even a bit disinterested, during a tepid version of Milton Nascimento's "Vera Cruz" (via the English-language version, "Empty Faces," by Lani Hall). But that was only a momentary glitch in a program that quickly picked up speed, embracing a harmonically intriguing interpretation of "All the Things You Are" and climaxing with extraordinary takes on "All of You" and "I Thought About You."

Part of Murphy's problem may trace to the fact that he does so many vocal things so well -- driven by a rapidly flowing imagination that takes him in a multiplicity of directions -- that he rarely lands on a passage long enough to allow his listeners to fully connect with him. Occasional moments in ballads, for example, revealed his capacity for warmly intimate phrasing. But he seemed loath to allow those moments to expand.

Still, there's no denying that Murphy is one of the jazz world's most magical performers, one of its two or three most fascinating male vocalists, and an artist who deserves far more attention.

*

Mark Murphy

Where: Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City

When: Tonight through Sunday, 8 and 9:30 p.m.

Price: $25 cover

Contact: (310) 271-9039

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