A guy with a thing for the blues and CSNY finds himself immersed in jazz and turns into a lifelong student. Guitarist James Robert Murphy has worked those etudes and now his breakout as a jazz musician in the new CD “Park North, the 2920 Sessions” shows he has the passion, the material and the creativity to pull it off.
A clear and bright guitar starts the melody in “Wherever, Whenever” grounded with shooshing brushes as the vocalist launches into a love song. Effervescent “Run Johnny” keeps time rolling, with laced-in drum beats punctuated diplomatically by guitar, and “There Was a Time” sports ringing harmonies with a blues voice that breaks out in pain. There are eight tracks, most of them original, hearkening sometimes to the wide reverb of surfer music and at other times, a dip into smooth jazz.
Why did you start guitar?
I began to take an interest in the guitar when I was 16 years old, back in the early 1970s. I think most of us would agree that everything from Led Zeppelin to Crosby, Stills Nash and Young to Black Sabbath to Joni Mitchell were a main part of our lives. Music was changing from the formatted pop hit to the individual creativeness of the artist. Hiding in my bedroom and drawing out chord structures I had discovered on my Kingston acoustic guitar and writing lyrics to go with those chord structures was the best mathematical adventure I had ever been on.
What iconic musicians have inspired you?
In the beginning Neil Young was a major influence. His guitar work, his lyrics and unique voice drew me toward him. Jimmy Page on several levels but I would have to say the songs like The Rain Song and the later realization that the acoustic guitar played such an important role in one of the world’s most popular rock bands was important to me. Hendrix because of his experimentation with new chords, his lyrics and the ability to make the guitar do so many things. Of course Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and the rest of the gang were overwhelming.
In the blues world, Muddy Waters’ slide guitar work, T-Bone Walker, early Buddy Guy, Albert, Freddie and B.B. King, and Stevie Ray Vaughan for never playing a wrong note.
In the jazz world, since I am relatively new to the field, I haven’t studied or dedicated myself to any particular artist. Of course, through life I have been enamored by the ability of jazz guitarists to seemingly float through songs – play beautiful guitar riffs through any type of chord pattern. And jazz chord structures have always been like a dream to me. How did they do that shit? That is why jazz has become my new mathematical quest – getting rid of the traditional 1-4-5 progressions and creating wide open progressions that defy any standard progression platform.
These new progressions on Park North are my own, not copied from anyone (with the exception of Hey Baby – a standard blues progression, and There Was A Time – a standard blues progression but with a different style lead). My next project will be focused on everything being brand new.
What led to “Park North” and how long were these songs in the making?
The last book I published was in 2020 and titled Poetry from a Road Scholar (Wipf and Stock Publishing). It is comprised of song lyrics to 85 of my songs. I wrote the majority of these songs while hitchhiking back and forth across the Unites States in the 1970s and 80s. While reviewing my 17 songbooks for the book’s selections, I came across several jazz-style songs and poetic lyrics. At this time I had just released an Americana-style CD titled The Way Things Used To Be, a collection of original material I had always wanted to release but never did. I recorded this project in my new home studio (don’t get excited, this studio is about as basic as it can get). So I got to thinking that maybe I should release a jazz CD.
I had a few songs that fit that vein and were never recorded so I began focusing on this material which resulted in Jazz: The 2920 Sessions. This being my first attempt at jazz, I would grade it a B.
I learned a tremendous amount during the course of this project. If anything, I would say that half the material was over-produced. That being said, these particular songs were old songs of mine so recording them and trying to create a jazz vein – something I knew nothing about – I think I did pretty well. Five of the ten songs were new songs, so that was something. This led to Park North. I realized I could produce a CD in a year or less and write new material and really get to experiment.
I wanted Park North to be the transitional CD. The CD where I might be able to actually transform my country/blues persona into a jazz persona. I’m not quite there, but I will be.
How did you meet your band members and what do they contribute to this album?
My band members are local celebrities, beginning with Curt Bushaw. A couple of years ago I was looking to move away from the 4-hour, 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. electric blues scene I had been in for decades. I wanted a little trio that hid in the corner of fancy restaurants and basically performed for themselves. Curt had been introduced to me by a drummer I had been getting together with, Ace Patterson. Curt is a music educator, and an all-around bassist but he is primarily a jazz bassist. Since I am a songwriter and perform mostly original material, musicians that will actually take them to learn my material are few and far between. I was honored that Curt fit that bill. We continued working together for the next few years.
Pianist Ruben Gutierrez, also a music educator, is simply one of those prodigies that can and does perform all styles of music. But Ruben doesn’t just bang away at his instrument, he plays it. When I receive his recorded tracks back there is always more there than I bargained for. In many cases his work has inspired my ability to complete the song in a better fashion than I had envisioned.
Ruben’s wife Monica, a vocal educator, sang Two Flames Burning on my Jazz: The 2920 Sessions. Saxophonist and educator Frank Zona and I are both from Auburn, NY but we met here in El Paso. Frank is a smooth player and I am a fan. Vocalist Joshua Lucero is from Juarez, Mexico. I met him through a connection with UTEP Opera. He sang a song on my Jazz: The 2920 Sessions CD. On Park North Joshua sings Wherever, Whenever. It was a brand-new song that I actually offered to a female vocalist but she turned it down. Now I can’t imagine anyone else singing it but Joshua.
I guess I lean toward music educators. I see that most jazz artists are educators as well.
How did you work through the production challenges of the pandemic?
For the most part it was easy. I would create the drum track, the melody, rhythm and the bass track, and on top of that I would toss in the vocals. I would then email a rough mix to pianist Ruben Gutierrez with a basic music chart. I say basic because I do not know how to properly write charts but I would do the best I could so he would at least know what chords I was playing. I would never make any suggestions as to what I wanted from him. To me, I am in no position to tell any musician what I expect from them. And to be honest, it opens up the field of creativity. Anyway, Ruben might send me an electric piano and a Rhodes, or perhaps an acoustic piano and some strings – all on separate tracks. I would listen to the tracks separately and edit out the phrasing I did not want to use.
I did the same with Frank Zona, the sax player. He would record his parts at home and I would edit what he sent me. I would send bass player Curt Bushaw the rough cut via email and my half-ass charts. He would listen to them and then come in and cut the bass tracks in the studio. We kept our distance and we were the only two people in the studio.
The same went with vocalist Joshua Lucero. He was sent the rough cut with me singing and a rough cut with no vocal. The he came in. I was already vaccinated by the time he came in. I would note that the horn parts, drum tracks, cymbals crashes and percussion were all created in the studio.
How would you characterize your own particular style?
I am a self-taught musician. I was just writing an article about my early days of learning. It was impossible for me to learn songs from the radio or from albums. Ever since the beginning I just could not do it. I recently realized that I might have been dyslexic or had some sort of learning disorder. I had the same problem through school. I could read directions but I had a very hard time understanding what they meant. This being said, it was easier for me to put my own chords together and write my own lyrics.
For all of my career I have performed mostly original music. It’s worked for me. Believe me, I have wished I could be banging out the Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd or Jeff Beck but I never could figure it out. It was, and still is, embarrassing.
Because I have no jazz influences to speak of other than listening to jazz, I like to think that my work will stand on its own. The song structures may be compared to others but it would be serendipitous. I do not know any standard jazz progressions. I am working toward playing my guitar like a jazz guitarist would play while also having the correct jazz tone. The structure of the songs is of my own making because I have no understanding of how they should be structured. So my style is my own. I am a work in progress.
Why did you start the blues festival in Syracuse and the Irish festival there?
I grew up working in a family-owned residential remodeling business. My dad did everything. Found the work, created the budget, sold the job, hired the subcontractors, ordered the materials and completed project after project. He was also a carpenter, mason, electrician, plumber and all else. I inherited those organizational skills from him.
I’d say forty-some years ago my Syracuse friends started traveling to Chicago to their blues festival. Some would go to New Orleans and other locations. Syracuse already had an annual jazz festival taking place. In 1990 I went to the Chicago Blues Festival. I came home thinking that everybody from the East Coast was going to Chicago for the blues fest. Syracuse was a hotbed for local blues and it was centrally located between Chicago, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut. So I organized a Blues Society. There was an earlier version of a Blues Society but it fell apart. In short, it was tough going.
We formed a completely naïve board of directors (including myself) and did our best. I went to downtown nightclubs and Hotel Syracuse and talked to city officials and I put up my own money for deposits on the bands. Needless to say it became very successful. At its peak we were managing 16 stages throughout downtown and hosting a 3-day festival. Hundreds of bands were signed to perform. It was unbelievable.
I received the Keeping the Blues Alive award from the Blues Foundation in Memphis, TN in 2003. The blues fest faltered a couple of times after I left in 2004. I went back in 2013 and served as the director for one year. They were in debt up to their eyeballs. The City of Syracuse said “no more.” I brought the city back on board and many old sponsors and new sponsors. They are now back on their feet.
Re the Irish Fest – the Parks and Recreation Director Pat Hogan had worked with me during my 12 years managing the blues fest. In 1998 he asked me to organize an Irish festival. It was an immediate huge success and has been ever since. I managed it for five years before moving to El Paso.
When you compose, what do you start with – a melody, a chord, or just an idea for a feeling?
Since I’ve switched to jazz, one of the first things I do when creating new material is to find a drum pattern that I am completely unfamiliar with. That beat provides the foundation for a new chord sequence on my guitar. This usual pattern consists of an opening melody or theme, a guitar lead, the melody, a piano lead, the melody, another guitar lead, and an out phrase. Once the chord structure is complete I go back to the drums and add drum rolls (never using the same drum roll or drum sound in any other song). Once I figure a single chord pattern out, I have at times, simply modulated to the next key. But somewhere in there I might reverse the chord pattern or even turn it inside out. Run Johnny is a perfect example of that. Finally, I will go back through and add various cymbals and percussion.
My goal is to create a drum pattern that an actual drummer would not recognize as a synthetic drum machine.
So, I begin with drums most of the time, then create the rhythm, then the melody, then the bass, then bring in Ruben and whoever else, and then slice and dice. Each song usually bakes for 30 days until it’s time to pull it out of the oven and serve it up.
How is this work a new iteration of you compared with your first CD?
Jazz: The 2920 Sessions really broke new ground for me. I was writing again and I was finally producing songs I’d written so long ago. I felt as though I was onto something even though my guitar playing wasn’t quite up to par, and my production skills were a little shaky. I was working in a field I was completely unfamiliar with. Songs like Jazz 31 and Swing 280 are great little instrumentals. The Hound Dog Shuffle and Be Flat are pretty clean, cool pieces. But Song For…, Love Is Broken, Two Flames Burning, and Trenchante Mer, Mineure maybe could have been saved for a future project, when I was more developed. Saint James Infirmary is a classic. I pulled the entire song off in a couple of hours – mastering included.
I wanted Park North to be more intellectual – smoother, cleaner, simpler. I wanted to prove I was a better guitar player. I wanted to create memorable three-minute songs. I think I have accomplished this. But I still threw Hey Baby, There Was a Time and People Get Ready in there.
How do you see yourself growing as a musician?
Some of Park North is damn near perfect. At least to me.
On my next CD, which I will begin soon, I will work for perfection. Every song will be a new song, every note will be just the right note. On my next project the horns will be real horns. All of the vocals, if there are any, will be sung by professional singers. I am really looking forward to it.
What are you most proud of in your musical career?
A couple of things I guess. That I have performed mostly original music and nobody ever complained. And that I have been able to create music in multiple genres, with jazz, for me, being the top rung of the ladder.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
© 2021 Debbie Burke