June 24, 2019. Legendary for his gifts of vocal improvisation—and for putting lyrics to Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” and Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay”—the late vocalist Mark Murphy, who died in 2015, had a profound impact on the kind of jazz singer Nancy Kelly has become.
With Remembering Mark Murphy, Kelly offers a musical tribute to her friend and mentor that Murphy fans should enjoy: appropriately deferential to the source material, yet sufficiently adventurously interpretative to do Murphy’s spirit justice.
Among the most notable tracks on Remembering are the three tunes featuring Cheltenham-native and legendary trumpeter, Randy Brecker: “Empty Faces (Vera Cruz),” “On the Red Clay,” and “Body and Soul.” Brecker’s probably at the peak of his powers on the Hubbard tune that Murphy famously lyricized.
But throughout the record, he sounds every bit as good as when he originally recorded all three tunes with Murphy for 1975’s Mark Murphy Sings, the album that probably had the greatest impact on Kelly and the direction her career would take.
Bobby Militello, who played alto saxophone and flute with Dave Brubeck for thirty years, is also nothing short of terrific, playing both (along with soprano sax) here. He dazzles on flute on the album’s opener “Empty Faces,” first out in front, then in harmony with Brecker. And his turns on alto (“Stolen Moments” and “I’m Glad There is You”) and soprano (“Night Mood”) are melodic and sensitive and pitch-perfect.
Pianist John Di Martino who co-produced and wrote all the album’s arrangements is the quintessential singer’s best friend on Remembering, framing Kelly’s vocal ideas as a gifted catcher does for a pitcher adept at painting the corners.
Of course, though analogies abound, jazz is not ultimately competitive sport—there’s room for plenty of winners here. Among them bassist Peter Mack and guitarist Steve Brown who are given their due on the album’s closer, the always fun “This Could Be the Start of Something Big.” Mack's walking bassline invites Brown to join in on congas before the versatile guitarist offers up a cool and breezy solo to pair perfectly with a vocal style that is all steak and no frivolous sizzle.
If there must be a star of stars here, it’s Kelly, whose straight-ahead style is free of the contrived wispiness and vocal affectations one might find in lesser talents. Kelly is the type of vocalist instrumentalists love to work with because she works like they do: she’s adept at playing with them and playing off of them.
Most importantly, she’s always dead center when it comes to hitting the emotional tenor of the tune, due to a piece of advice Mark Murphy once gave her: “Sing from inside the song.” Listening to Remembering, it’s clear Kelly is keeping Murphy’s legacy alive by following that simple yet profound piece of advice.