"This master of improvisation is grateful for the musical opportunities provided him by Tito Puente"

By Marsha Rose

    It's a long way from Grand Falls, Newfoundland in Eastern Canada to South Florida, and the highly creative, never-without-his-beret,  Brian Murphy, a  world-class pianist/composer/arranger can attest to every step of the way. Born there, the eldest of four boys, Brian was a classic musical prodigy, replete with perfect pitch. "My parents played music together in a dance band. My mom played piano and dad played the alto saxophone so I grew up with music all around me. At six I began taking piano lessons from the Presentation Sisters at Notre Dame Academy (under the auspices of Trinity College of Music, London)." Brian went on to play clarinet and bass clarinet in St. Michael's High School jazz band and piano in the stage band. "That's when I first heard Bill Evans and Dave Brubeck. My favorite group was Booker T and the MG's, they were the ultimate rhythm section and I was playing Hammond B-3 by then, myself. I was listening  to a lot of different recordings. I think this is the way jazz and improvised music should be learned, aurally! This is a language best learned through listening. A big influence on me from that time was Czech composer/keyboardist Jan Hammer who, at eighteen, was playing  and arranging for Sarah Vaughn, at nineteen with Elvin Jones and at twenty one with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He also did a lot of scoring for television including 'Miami Vice'. Pianist/Composers Paul Bley, Chick Corea, Hank Jones, Jaki Byard, Steve Kuhn and Richard Tee were all major influences on me."

    Later, Brian connected with Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass in Toronto. He was featured with Guido Basso (1987-1994) and toured Canada and Europe with the Boss Brass. Brian has performed and recorded extensively in Canada, the United Kingdom, Europe, Japan and the U.S.A. with many of the world's most renowned jazz artists including Wynton Marsalis,  Harry "Sweets" Edison, Buddy DeFranco, Diane Krall, Paquito D'Rivera, Woody Shaw,  Dave Leibman, Wycliffe Gordon, Duffy Jackson, Ira Sullivan and Joe Donato as well as blues greats Jimmy Witherspoon, Albert Collins and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson.

    A rather special and coveted  connection with Tito Puente began in 1989. They met at a concert at "Berlin", a  Latin dance venue in Toronto. After hearing Brian's group play, Tito quipped, "Why can't we find more pianist/arrangers like this in NYC?" At this initial encounter, El Rey commissioned Brian to transform three classic jazz standards, "Airegin", "Straight No Chaser", and "Pent Up House".  They were recorded as part of a Concord CD entitled "Goza Mi Timbal" which was released in 1990 and won a Grammy award. The following year Brian was called upon by Mr. Puente to pen five arrangements for his next CD on Concord, "Out Of This World". Brian contributed special treatments of "In Walked Bud", "S'Wonderful", "Georgia Brown", "Along Came Betty" and the title track, "Out Of This World."  Brian's most recent arrangement for El Rey is a bolero treatment of an Erroll Garner ballad, "Crème de Menthe", for a CD called "Master Timballero".  His contribution  is one of twelve by ten different arrangers including Hilton Ruiz, Gil Lopez, Charlie Otwell and Tito.  Says Brian, "I will always be grateful for the opportunities afforded me by Tito Puente, the King of Latin Jazz."

    In 1994, Brian and partner, song stylist/poet/photographer Donna "Blue" MacDonald received greencards for the U.S. in a special Canadian lottery. They came to Key West and Brian started playing gigs at the Casa Marina and Captain Hornblower's where he first met Ira Sullivan and they went on to establish a relationship that, over the years, has been one of musically inspired, mutual meeting of the minds. They are both practitioners, at the highest level, of the art of spontaneous composition and embrace the true exploratory spirit of jazz. When asked about his favorite playing context, Brian expounds, "I like spontaneous improvisation with trio or quartet with people who are really listening and creating musical  rapport in that moment. Everyone on the same plane."

    CDs available from the artist include Ira Sullivan with the Brian Murphy Trio, "Live in Toronto: Top of the Senator", recorded at JVC Toronto (2002) featuring Jim Vivian, bass, and Terry Clarke on drums. Another CD showcases Joe Donato with the Brian Murphy Trio, "Live at the Tuscany" (2001), featuring Joe Donato on soprano, alto and tenor saxes and flute; Brian on Kurzweil stage piano; Don Miller, acoustic bass; Larry Marshall, drums; and Kathleen Donato and Daniel McCleod on vocals.

    Catch Brian every Thursday with a pared-down version of the afore-mentioned group at Tuscany Café in Coconut Grove. On June 20th, 21st, 27th and 28th Brian will be accompanying New York jazz singer Stevie Holland in the Royal Room at the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach. Brian will also be performing at the Jamaica Jazz Festival in Ocho Rios, the second week of June with Joe Donato. Hey Mon, have a great time!!

Brian Murphy - Sketch Of An Artist
   by Christine Naughton
  Solares Hill - Key West

He has played the piano in command performances for Prince Philip; Prince Charles and Diana Princess of Wales; Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson; Faye Dunaway; and the Dalai Lama of Tibet.  He arranged, played and otherwise collaborated on four of Tito Puente's albums, including his Grammy Award winning 1989 release, Goza Mi Timbal. He has performed as music director/accompanist for Shirley Bassey, Woody Shaw, Gerry Niewood, Guido Basso and many more frequent fliers in the stratosphere of the music industry in general, jazz in particular.

Brian Murphy has been residing quietly in Key West for the past few months. Every Sunday through Wednesday he plays with bassist Lonnie Jacobson in Flagler's at the Casa Marina, from 8p.m. to midnight.  We could end "Gigs" early this week -- right here, in fact-- and say, "Just go hear this guy play while whatever magic is is keeps him here."  But we recently had much too absorbing a conversation with Murphy to do that.

Though Murphy's speaking voice often takes on the cadence of boyish wonder, he is plenty well read and worldly. As for the the magic, we learned that it is embodied in Murphy's lover, local songstress and poet Donna MacDonald.

"Donna lured me here with Key West mysticism, and told me that I would receive what I need because it's all here," he said.  Murphy's enchantment extends to his gig at the Casa, as well. "Flagler's has been a gift to me. It's a pleasure to perform amidst such grandeur."

The artist's beginnings were simpler. He grew up with his parents and three younger brothers in Eastern Canada, in Newfoundland.  "It's kind of isolated," Murphy said. "I think that when you grow up in a place that's not so centralized, you learn the value of things."

For many years, Murphy has made his home in Toronto. "I like space. I like peace and quiet. Cities are kind of a necessary evil, though, you know. If you want to go hear music, you have to be in a place where there's enough people who like what you like so they'll go and support it. So that people can be brought in. So you can afford to see things. Cities are good for that.

Born of two musicians, Murphy was gifted with perfect pitch and an innate understanding of the piano. He was playing fluidly before he began elementary school. His serious pursuit of jazz began when he was a teenager. "I listened to a lot of recordings, which, to me is the best way to learn this kind of music. This music is not learned in school. You learn the most from listening as all music is language and  jazz music, in particular, is spontaneous composition by nature. The more familiar you become with the elements as you hear the sounds in your mind's ear, the easier it will be to speak the language and understand it."

See? There's material here for a major oil painting, and we only have enough space for a rough pencil sketch of this artist. In our conversation, Murphy freely philosophized on a variety of subjects, and listening to him talk about jazz and concepts of freedom was especially beautiful and enlightening. But not as beautiful and enlightening as hearing him play, of course, so go see him at Flagler's.

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