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MARK MURPHY'S VOICE OF JAZZ - SWEET, WARM AND SOULFUL

It's not every day one gets to see an internationally famous jazz singer sitting in a Buffalo State College classroom, fidgeting and studying his handout just like any student.

But that's the scene in Charles Mancuso's pop music history class - where, this semester, Mark Murphy is the artist in residence.

On a recent Tuesday, Mancuso's lecture is titled "Mr. Satch and Mr. Cros." The professor shows slides of Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong. He tells stories about them and plays their records. From time to time, he prompts Murphy to speak.

Discussing Al Jolson, for instance, he asks: "Did Jolson have any impact on your world?"

Murphy stirs, as if startled, like a kid called on to answer a question. "No, I came to him, um, late . . ." He shifts in his seat.

He looks too big for the chair, for the room.

Starting in the '50s and '60s, when he recorded for Capitol and Decca, Murphy has won his share of accolades. Last year, Down Beat magazine readers voted him best male vocalist, and he has received numerous Grammy Award nominations. Though he never quite made it to jazz superstardom, people have wondered why. One Philadelphia listener, for instance, rants on the Web site amazon.com: "Why Mark Murphy isn't at Carnegie Hall every night, or at least off-Broadway, is a mystery to me."

The singer has enjoyed a long association with Western New York. He grew up in Syracuse, and spent a lot of time here in his formative years, playing at Buffalo clubs like the Zanzibar and the Royal Arms. Last year, when he gave a concert at the Tralf, the place was crowded with longtime fans.

One listener who was there that evening was singer Michael Civisca. He praises Murphy's innovative approach.

"He'll take a torchy ballad and make it work at a very uptempo pace," Civisca says. "Like 'As Time Goes By.' You expect it to be a ballad, but he does it uptempo, puts in a really nice scat chorus. Same with "The Masquerade Is Over.' While people think it's going to be a torchy song, he goes ballistic with it.

"He has a very warm tone to his voice," Civisca adds. "Very soulful."

A large and loyal crowd is expected to turn out Friday, when Murphy performs at 8 p.m. in Buffalo State College's Rockwell Hall. Joining him will be a trio led by local pianist Sal Macaluso, featuring Mike Kaupa on trumpet.

It's Murphy's first performance in Buffalo all semester - which seems strange, considering that he is a man born to sing. He proves that one night at E.B. Greene's, where he turns up to hear entertainer Jackie Jocko, a longtime acquaintance. Toward the evening's end, when everyone has loosened up, Murphy approaches the piano. "Let me sing this song for you," he says.

Jocko, to the shock of nearby listeners, refuses. House rules, he says, are against it.

Obediently, Murphy sits down. But later, during "It Don't Mean a Thing," he can't help joining in. "It makes no difference if it's sweet or hot," Jocko sings. And Murphy chimes in softly, his sound smooth and quirky, just like on his records.

"Yes it does, yes it does," he sings.

The hipster

Murphy's residency at Buffalo State is a dream come true for Mancuso. The professor has been a fervent fan from way back. In high school, he named his basketball team the Mark Murphys, and when he met the singer years ago, they became friends.

Mention the Mark Murphys, and Murphy still laughs helplessly. But it's clear he doesn't think having a team named after him is that terribly weird.

As an artist, Murphy has always been on the offbeat side.

He wears sandals a lot, and vintage clothes. Critics consistently refer to him as a "hipster," a term he says he doesn't mind. When he discusses his career, it's with the wry, slightly weary tones of a seasoned veteran.

"You have to be prepared to bounce around if you're going to stick with jazz. Because the audience for it is loyal and loving most of the time, but it's not the largest audience," he says, fidgeting. "Right now, it's good for me. But there again, I can't work, say, a lot of rooms. People who like vocal jazz improvisation are not the large audiences."

Murphy speaks in halts and starts, as if his normal conversation is a kind of scat singing.

"The people who do come are usually marvelous," he adds. "Because my history has finally caught up with me and made it easier for me. All the 16 or 17 CDs that I've made - I have a track record, which is pretty hard to take away from. So I get listeners."

Murphy's music could never be called exactly mainstream. He likes a challenge, and besides seeking out rhythmically complex material, writes songs of his own. One who was impressed was his style was Ella Fitzgerald; reportedly, she said of Murphy, "He is my equal."

After years on the bandstand, Murphy is able to discuss his craft very articulately.

"The most technically difficult song on my new album was Dave Frishberg's "Wheelers and Dealers,' " he says, for instance. "You've got to be really tight enough to get the diction out. Because if they don't get the words, they're not going to get the rhythmic message either."

Murphy, who has done a good deal of teaching in Europe, has expressed willingness to take on promising vocal students during his residency here. "I'm good at zeroing in on exactly what that one or that one needs," he acknowledges.

As a vocal coach, Murphy aims to help students find their own voices. He took many of his own cues in that direction from one of his heroes, Miles Davis.

"He was a strange persona," Murphy muses, recalling Davis.

"I got close enough to hear some of his conversations and I backed away. I thought, I want to hear him play. That's where he's an angel. I didn't want to know the rest of him. But there's something so beautiful about him and so emotionally free. He has no walls in his playing. All his doors are OPEN! And if I do anything, it's to open doors. I say, "Look, you thought you couldn't do it! You just did it!'"

Sammy Davis Jr., too, gave Murphy encouragement. Once, he stopped in at a Syracuse club where Murphy was singing.

"I opened my eyes during a solo and there he was, in the doorway, tapping his foot," Murphy smiles. "You need that to know that you're making the right choice."

"In shadow land'

Murphy is looking forward to his Rockwell Hall concert. He responds to a good audience, and rhapsodizes eloquently on performances he has enjoyed.

"The last three nights at Birdland were wonderful. The last engagement in London was electric," he says.

He leans forward. "There's this place called Pizza on the Park. A very misnamed place. There are black walls, and when you're sitting there, all you see are the performer and the band, and so they have to turn the lights down when the performer's there. Because I insisted on coming in February, I got the London audience, and not the tourists.

"And it was so intense, I would have to slow myself down," he declares. "Because I got a pain here." He touches his side, suggesting a cramp. "Those were optimum conditions," he says, shaking his head as he recalls the evening. "Optimum conditions."

Murphy also rejoiced in a three-week Australian gig that brought him completely out of his shell. "I grew like a jungle flower in those three weeks," is how he puts it. "And I was never the same afterwards."

Murphy discusses his neuroses freely. He has suffered his whole life, he confesses, from a kind of attention deficit disorder, a nervous that seems to mirror his restless bop singing style. And for his whole life, he says, he has been "incredibly shy."

"I was reminded of that by a Japanese photographer who was working with me and could sense it," he says. "He could sense this private person who was very, very shy. Always was," he interjects abruptly. "But yet when you're performing, you have to. . ."

He pauses.

"If you're not naturally gregarious, you have to invent another personality to deal with this - work. And so you had to be careful that you're not always performing, in the performance mode.

"So sometimes I am back in the shadows," he says. "In my lyrics, there are references to being in the shadows, coming out of the shadows. That's what it means. That some people are just born to be in shadow land."

Mark Murphy performs Friday at 8 p.m. in the Performing Arts Center at Rockwell Hall. Admission is $15 ($5 for students), and the proceeds will benefit scholarship funds for incoming Buffalo State College students. For information, call 878-3005.

e-mail mkunz@buffnews.com

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