There's long been an incorrect assumption that drama is easier to do than comedy, that it's easier to make someone cry than laugh. Similarly, dazzlingly executed burners often carry more jazz cred' than heart-achingly captured ballads.
Vocalist supreme Mark Murphy has long been lauded for his skilled scatting, musical reconceptualizing and structural recontextualizing; there's been no lack of firepower in his aural arsenal. But it's the 73 year old native upstate New Yorker's latest all-ballad album, Once to Every Heart, which may prove to be one of the finest works of an already impressive performance career – one that spans over 50 years and encompasses six GRAMMY® nominations.
A collaboration with 34-year old Till Brönner, who played trumpet and flügelhorn and handled production duties, the ten track collection of eight standards and two originals (one by Murphy and one from Brönner) also features the work of 38-year old pianist Frank Chastenier and strings arrangements by Johnny Mandel protégé Nan Schwartz. It's a supreme accomplishment, one that Murphy himself reckons couldn't have been realized early or even halfway into his decades-long recording career.
"I couldn't have done this without the understanding that I have now about the shades and undercurrents in the songs," says Murphy. "Some of them are like the plot to The Big Sleep - that black and white baby with Bogie and Bacall. They're so complicated, with references back and forth to the beginning and the end.
The genesis of Once to Every Heart lies in Berlin, where Murphy was finishing up a European tour with ace pianist/arranger Alan Broadbent in 2002. He and German native Brönner conversed at a restaurant, and a rapport was instantly established.
"It was completely unsolicited," says Murphy, of both the friendship and the album. "He seemed to know who I was, and we just started talking."
(Brönner was indeed familiar with Murphy's body of work. "I heard my first Mark Murphy recording in the late ’80s, when I was 18 years old," he says. "Immediately, I was hooked by the register of his voice, his phrasing and a never before heard, very recognizable style that I thought was so slick. Male jazz singing -- to me, that is Mark Murphy.")
That same sense of natural ease could be found later in 2002 at Brönner's recording studio in Berlin, where he, Murphy and Chastenier gathered to record the foundation for Once to Every Heart as trio.
"Till went out of his way just to make me feel comfortable and like a king when I came to his studio, and very few people do this," reports Murphy, with a laugh. "I wanted Mark to feel like he was in his living room, not in a studio," says Brönner.
"I mean, I'm usually ready to work on a recording session, but I was never this relaxed," Murphy replies. "And you can feel that in the renditions, I think, because it wasn't fake. There was really a lot of feeling, between the three of us."
The only parameters producer Brönner set for Murphy was that the sessions were to be all ballads and stress free. "No hurry" was a de facto rule. (Schwartz later listened to the sessions and wrote string arrangements.)
"I brought a bunch of music," says Murphy, "on top of which was lying the title tune, 'Once to Every Heart.’ It was a great B-side of Jo Stafford’s in the early ’50s, written by her husband, Paul Weston.” In addition to the title track, a pair of two song medleys stand out. His matchmaking of "Skylark" and "You Don't Know What Love Is" may very well be as old as Brönner is: "I wrote the chart, my God, 30 years ago, maybe 40 years ago in an apartment I had in Greenwich Village," he remembers. "And I'm still using the copies of that same pencil-written chart!
"It's always gotten the audience," he says, of that arrangement. "And then I put it away for, oh, ten or 12, 15 years. I do that sometimes, and then I get the stuff out again."
"When I Fall in Love" starts off a cappella, showcasing Murphy's rich instrument. The piece then segues into "My One and Only Love." "That happened without music, because they're both in the key of C," he says. "And most every player I work with knows both those tunes, and I can just turn around and do it without even telling them what I'm going to do."
There's an organic sound to "Being Green," which almost didn't make the cut. "I had wanted to record it though, maybe it had been overdone." he says. "But with just the three people there, you very quickly got to the core of the song. And it was such a personal expression of each of us that we really made it sound new. You can do that if you come at a song with a fresh approach.
"It's like how I put away the 'Skylark' (medley) for about 15 years. And then I came back to it, and the audiences started loving it," he expounds. "And I said, 'Well maybe we better record this!'
The combination of trumpet and voice showcased here brings to mind the work of Chet Baker or Louis Armstrong. But tenor saxophone comes to mind when Murphy talks about Once to Every Heart, Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane's sole recording together. "I think it's the closest a singer and a player have gotten since that record, to my ears," he opines.
In addition to the rapport between Murphy and Brönner, the tonal match between his voice and the trumpet's also makes for beautiful music, he reckons. "My timbre is lower now than it was before, and the trumpet seems to give it almost a Miles Davis top," he says. "And Till has this magic way of putting a lot of air through the mouthpiece, like Chet did.
In as high regards as Brönner holds Murphy, so too does the latter admire the former. And Murphy's broad stylistic approach, which ranges from post-bop, ballads and blues to spoken word, vocalese and even electronica collaborations, matches Brönner's many outlets for musical expression. "As a producer, musician and handler of the electronic board, Till is a wiz," proclaims Murphy. "He's also like the Wynton Marsalis of Europe, because he plays classical stuff fantastically. And in addition to his jazz, his funk playing is a tour de force that nobody else really can do."
"I'm a trumpet freak anyway," he goes on to admit. “I’ve always been a Miles nut. I guess I switched from saxophone to trumpet years ago, and I never went back. And this guy, as far as trumpet playing goes, can do no wrong, as far as I'm concerned."
By a close friend and fan's account, Murphy has appeared on 118 releases, including some 60 of his own. Once to Every Heart is arguably one of his most personal realizations. "I became so aware of the importance of choosing a song that is yours," Mark says. "The music and lyrics have to tell a story which simply is yours, even if it was written 60 years ago.”