If there’s a musician’s musician in blues, it’s Matt “Guitar” Murphy. Murphy developed his style in the churning, innovative postwar Memphis blues scene, where the rough sounds of traditionalists like Howlin’ Wolf coexisted uneasily with the slicker, more sophisticated music being developed by artists like Little Junior Parker, B.B. King, and Bobby “Blue” Bland.

Murphy played with Wolf for a while in the late 40s. He became impatient with the uncomfortable musical fit, however, and soon left: though barely out of his teens, Murphy was advancing rapidly, studying and learning to read music, while Wolf, he says, could barely keep time. Murphy concentrated on developing a lithe style that owed much to west-coast bluesmen (Johnny and Oscar Moore, and T-Bone Walker, who’d moved to California from Texas before the war), who were also busy updating and polishing the blues.

In 1952, 22-year-old Matt Murphy was brought to Saint Louis, and later to Chicago, by pianist Memphis Slim. That union was one of the great pairings in blues history: Slim’s multifaceted virtuosity was matched by Murphy’s ability to fuse uptown sophistication and harsh roadhouse exuberance. In 1986, Chicago audiences were treated to a rare glimpse of a legend come to life when Slim and Murphy were reunited for a set at the Chicago Blues Festival. The two proved then that the years hadn’t detracted from their legendary synergy.

Despite his impeccable reputation among musicians and aficionados, however, Murphy has never received the popular acclaim that other, lesser talents have come to enjoy. A stint with James Cotton in the 70s, his famous gig as the regular lead guitarist in the original Blues Brothers Band, and a much-publicized appearance in The Blues Brothers in 1980 made his name and face immediately recognizable to many. He’s had a difficult time since then, however, breaking out of the small-club circuit.

Part of the problem may be his own uncompromising nature. Although he’s among the most proficient and versatile instrumentalists in popular music, Murphy refuses to put himself out front for an entire show. His sidemen are usually the finest available, but the singers he hires range from dismal (the parade of Belushi clones he employed directly after leaving the Blues Brothers) to run-of-the-mill (Larry Thurston, the dusky-voiced crooner who’s currently working with him). Murphy clearly considers himself a leader, not a sideman, yet he relegates himself to a sideman’s role for most of his set.

Thus a Murphy gig is actually two separate shows: the Matt Murphy show, and a performance by the vocalist who takes over after Murphy has warmed up the stage. Many of Murphy’s most ardent admirers leave the club at that point; they return after the singer has departed, the break is over, and Murphy is again fronting the band.

They may have the right idea. At B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera last Friday, Murphy provided the crowd with a display of virtuosity that ranged from dazzling to awe-inspiring; but the rest of the show, unfortunately, was lackluster.

First the good stuff: Murphy has again surrounded himself with players–keyboardist Keith Davis, saxophonist Baron Raymonde, bassist Bob Laramie, and drummer Floyd Murphy Jr., Matt’s nephew–capable of both supporting and inspiring him. Laramie and Murphy Jr. are especially impressive in their ability to switch stylistic gears: they play funk with appropriate hard-edged dirtiness, but they can also swing eloquently on a number like Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce,” the opening, selection Friday night.

There isn’t another guitarist in blues who can play bebop like Matt Murphy. He says that he spent many of his developing years listening to jazz horn players like Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons. From them he learned the nuances of phrasing, harmonic development, and musical logic necessary to build a coherent solo. As he demonstrated on Friday, that’s what makes his music so intriguing.

Murphy’s playing on “Billie’s Bounce” was exquisite; effortlessly his fingers coaxed lines of flawless speed and clarity from his instrument, segueing from complex bebop patterns into harsher blues. The saxophone influence was obvious: Murphy’s tone was full-bodied yet light, his vibrato breathlike and delicate. The transition from fleet bop improvisation into a declamatory blues finale was a masterpiece of solo construction. Murphy topped things off with his awesome trademark length-of-the-fret-board run, his muscular fingers skittering along the strings like a spider.

Little Willie Littlefield’s war-horse “Kansas City” allowed Murphy to dig deeply into his Memphis roots. String bending in the style popularized by B.B. King, he gave his leads a fire that some critics claim he’s lost. In fact throughout his performance he proved wrong those who say he’s gotten too slick to play blues with true feeling. Although no one will ever mistake him for Otis Rush, Murphy brings passion to everything he plays; that it sometimes seems almost too easy for him shouldn’t obscure the fact that he’s deeply committed to his music.

The band followed his forays into disparate styles with varying degrees of success, depending on the match between each man’s musical strengths and the music being played. Saxophonist Raymonde is obviously indebted to Dexter Gordon. His solo on “Billie’s Bounce” was built on harmonic concepts borrowed directly from Gordon; he employed long, swooping lines interspersed with eccentric rests and syncopations. He also shares Gordon’s penchant for crowd-pleasing gimmicks, sometimes to the detriment of the music. To my ears, he was most successful on sophisticated numbers like “Billie’s Bounce,” he tended to rely too much on shrieks and repetition when he tried to get down into the gutbucket on blues.

Keyboardist Davis, on the other hand, seemed more comfortable in a blues or funk setting. He lacks the subtle sense of dynamics necessary to play effective jazz (although some of this may be my own Neanderthal resistance to jazz played on electronic keyboards). But he charges into an up-tempo shuffle like “Kansas City” with joyful enthusiasm, banging out splintered treble flurries and keeping everything in line with a solid boogie bottom.

But always the main attraction was Murphy. “Sissy Strut,” originally a straightforward funk dance tune, was transformed into a jazz-fusion tour de force by the guitarist. In my younger, purist days I used to cringe when Murphy played funk, but that was my loss. His playing on “Sissy Strut” was a stone gas. Laramie’s bass popped along with delightful greasy impetus, and Raymonde booted out fractured phrases over the top in a manner reminiscent of Maceo Parker, James Brown’s famous tenor man.

Murphy started out sparse on “Sissy Strut,” laying carefully selected notes into the empty spaces between his rhythm section’s chunky accents; he slowly built his solo into a screaming climax, at times threatening to depart from the melody entirely and escape into free-form improvisation. This was not his flashiest work of the night–no spiderlike runs through the octaves, more reliance on musical imagination than on speed–but it was easily among the most adventurous I’ve heard him attempt. It was utterly successful, probably the most exhilarating music of the evening. He should think seriously about moving farther in that direction.

The appearance of vocalist Thurston signaled the end of Murphy’s part of the show. To be fair, Thurston’s not a bad singer. His vibrato is rich and soulful, and he’s got the sense to share the spotlight with the band instead of putting himself all the way out in front. For a while in fact, it seemed as if Thurston might work out: Murphy took frequent solos, combining his fertile imagination with emotional intensity in a way that kept things boiling for several numbers. Murphy also demonstrated his puckish sense of humor: his countryish “chicken scratching” during “On Broadway” was as incongruous as it was successful.

But it was not to last. There’s simply no way a singer of blues standards, no matter how good, can keep things going at the level Murphy establishes with his opening performance. Perhaps Murphy feels that he needs to structure his shows this way to keep people dancing; maybe he does. But for those who want to keep listening, the letdown when he steps back after only three or four numbers and lets the vocalist take over is palpable; it lasts for the rest of the night.

That kind of waste of talent is a musical sacrilege. One wonders if Murphy is afraid he’ll run out of ideas: occasionally he seems to slip into a kind of holding pattern, noodling around or bending strings for a bar or two before something new occurs to him. But that only means he hasn’t yet pushed himself past his limits; we won’t know if he’s truly capable of sustaining his high level of musicianship throughout an album or a performance until he takes the risk and finds out. Somewhere there’s got to be a producer or manager stubborn enough to force him to take that plunge and start playing, full-time, what he only shows glimpses of right now.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Fraher.