ABOUT MARK AND THE MUSIC
Hailed by Downbeat magazine as “a gifted musician with stories to tell,” vocalist-guitarist Mark Murphy follows up his 2016 effort Slip Away (one of Downbeat’s top albums of the year) with the lyrical and intimate Pocketful of Rainbows. While Murphy includes two originals, the main focus on this recording is songs by artists representing a range of great American singing and songwriting. Pocketful of Rainbows explores music by (or associated with) Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra up through Jackson Browne and Jesse Harris. It is a sound very much Murphy’s own, aptly described by jazzweekly.com as “unpretentious, informal and as comfy as two-year old Levi’s.”
Joining Murphy, simply put, are some of the greatest jazz musicians in the world. Pianist Jon Cowherd, guitarist Gilad Hekselman, saxophonist Dayna Stephens and drummer Jeff Ballard remain on board from Slip Away, playing with supreme taste and versatility, bringing a wealth of experience gained with Brian Blade, Chick Corea, Brad Mehldau and other greats. Bassist Chris Morrissey returns for a New Orleans-style second-line reading of Hank Williams’ classic “Hey Good Lookin’.” Maria Neckam adds sumptuous supporting vocals along with Grammy nominated violinist Sara Caswell on the title track. Tony Scherr plays unerring bass (mainly electric) on most tracks, and acoustic bass giant Larry Grenadier joins for a trio reinvention of Murphy’s original “Conversations” (first heard on Slip Away in an uptempo version). Drummer Colin Stranahan and bassist Matt Clohesy also add their steady feel to the recording.
“These musicians bring a deep understanding and sensitivity to my music, which at its core is pop/singer-songwriter-based,” says Murphy. To hear them in a singer-songwriter setting, bringing not only their technical strengths but also their melodic gifts and their willingness to serve the song above all else, makes Pocketful of Rainbows a unique encounter. One could say an album like this recalls the fruitful era of the ’70s and ’80s, “a period that I love,” Murphy says. “So much incredible music was being made by artists who had the highest-caliber musicians with them, all of whom could cross the line from jazz to pop and do it with such authenticity. Everyone on this record can do that.”
Murphy approaches each song with a view toward making something that can stand on its own, completely separate from the original — even if Murphy’s deep love for the original is what motivated the song choice in the first place. “It’s very challenging,” he says. “It’s trial and error. You learn a song and then you have to forget it, then come back to it like you’re building something new. Little details like re-harmonization, new rhythmic feels, vocal harmonies, melodies for the band to play — these are all the subtle details that when combined in the right way, make it something new and fresh. If you try to be ‘too’ creative or smart with the arrangement it sounds contrived. I think there’s a sweet spot in the middle. It has to sound and feel organic.”
Texture, tone color and instrumentation play a pronounced role as well: Cowherd’s Rhodes, organ and mellotron, playing varied roles on “Lay Lady Lay,” “Watching the Waves,” “Conversations” and “Come Fly with Me,” help to fundamentally recast the mood of those songs. Stephens’ baritone sax on “Hey Good Lookin’” gives the arrangement a certain heft and underlines the playful vibe.
The leadoff “Lay Lady Lay” is a logical follow-up to “Boots of Spanish Leather” on Slip Away, which made Murphy determined to tackle another Dylan song. “Pocketful of Rainbows,” on the other hand, happened by accident. Murphy caught a bit of Jerry Maguire on TV by chance, and that song, one of many written for Elvis by Ben Weisman, played at the end of a scene. “I’d either never heard the song or it never registered with me,” Murphy says. “It blew me away, so I raced for my guitar to figure it out.”
“Somebody’s Baby,” by Jackson Browne, appears in the 1982 classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High. “It’s weird because I’m not a big movie guy, but these two tunes have direct relationships to Cameron Crowe films, so I guess Cameron has my number.”
The connection to “Hey Good Lookin’” is personal: “I love Hank and my folks love Hank. This song reminds me of playing cards and having wine with them.” And “Come Fly with Me” is a nod to another of Murphy’s favorites: “I love Sinatra. I love the song and I love that album. The arrangements, the voice! It’s intimate and swinging all at the same time.
The standard “Dream a Little Dream of Me” also touches on the second-line rhythm, but with a slower, saltier feel. “Secret Sun,” by the modern songwriting marvel Jesse Harris, is a departure: the quartet format with no drums gives each voice added clarity and beauty, not least Murphy’s sensitive acoustic guitar accompaniment. And “Conversations,” even more stripped down with just Cowherd and Grenadier, contrasts richly with the faster version heard on Slip Away. The evolution of this song, about a relationship that has ended, hints at the emotional inner life of Murphy’s songcraft, a quality that makes Pocketful of Rainbows such a compelling listen.
A University of Miami music school graduate, Murphy is based in South Orange, New Jersey. In addition to his work as a solo artist, he is the owner of Mark Murphy’s Music, also in South Orange. In operation since 2003, it is one of the largest music schools in the Greater New York area, with approximately 40 music teachers.
As an educator and an artist, Murphy is a strong believer in the power of subtle arrangements and vocals, along the lines of his idols including Billie Holiday, Chet Baker, Paul Simon, James Taylor, João Gilberto, Nick Drake, Elliot Smith and Luciana Souza. These are roles models “who don’t hit you over the head with pyrotechnics but rather pull you in with pure intimacy and sincerity,” he says. “That to me is where the real beauty is, and that’s how I try to approach my own music.”
Written by David Adler