Gregory is the real deal and a revelation in terms of new male jazz singers, but I think that his voice coupled with his songwriting may be the thing that leaves most listeners with their mouths open. (producer Brian Bacchus)
Every once in a while, there comes an artist who changes everything. New York-based Motéma Music recognized that back in 2009 when it signed Gregory Porter. Blessed with a stylistic vocal range that encompasses classic jazz, theater, Motown, and R&B, Porter went to town on his debut, 2010 album, “Water.” It went #1 internationally before the Grammy committee took notice, giving Porter a “Best Jazz Vocal” nomination. (Psst! He should’ve won.)
Porter’s February 14, 2011 follow-up, “Be Good,” is even better. If Marvin Gaye were reincarnated as a jazz star, he’d make this sort of album. It’s the perfect cross-pollination of jazz and soul, groove and time, spilling over with endless, mad melodic hooks, heart-tugging lyricism, and plenty of room for each musician in the recording band to spread out. Listening to each and every song — nine of the 12 tracks are original compositions — will flood the senses with a heady combo of childhood innocence, heartbreaking nostalgia, and a reinvigorated appreciation for jazz’s intricate solo-to-interactive mastery.
Raised on Nat King Cole and raised by a loving, single mother (a minister) as the youngest of six in Bakersfield, CA, Porter gravitated toward the jazz clubs while attending San Diego State University on a football scholarship, then theater. He made a splash in his one-man show, “Nat King Cole And Me” and the celebrated Broadway hit, the Tony-nominated “It Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues.” When he moved to Brooklyn, he hit the ground running. The proof is in these two albums, with one more on the way — “Liquid Spirit” out on Blue Note next month.
Backed by his working band—pianist Chip Crawford, drummer Emanuel Harrold, bassist Aaron James, and alto saxophonist Yosuke Sato, special guests—trumpeter Keyon Harrold, tenor saxophonist Tivon Pennicott, and soprano saxophonist/horn arranger Kamau Kenyatta, and produced by Brian Bacchus (Grammy-winning “Come Away With Me” by Norah Jones), Porter has created an album full of instant jazz classics and radio hits.
“Be Good (Lion’s Song)” — the first single off the album and a popular song with audiences in many prior gigs — is a marvel. Written by Porter, complete with an official music video seeing frequent hits on YouTube, the hit single capitalizes on a captivating melody, dancing and prancing as lightly as a child in her first ballet class with warm, sweeping horns (arranged by Kamau Kenyatta) cutting through dramatically.
The vocals and music underscore poetry more than a straightforward song, as the narrative floats in between the lines, daring the listener to make the words personal and different. Porter doesn’t get specific. Is the song about a man who tries to woo his future wife and she’s too picky? Is the song about a father who worries about his growing daughter? Sorry, he won’t tell you.
“My songs may start from a place of personal experience,” he said. “I try not to impose any particular perspective on the music. I want listeners to be affected each in his or her own way, and moved as much by what can be read in between the lines as what the lyrics say.” There’s always plenty to read, in Porter’s emotionally open singing, his band’s cutthroat jazz narrative, and a beat to match. In this particular song, the genuine emotion in Porter’s voice, alternately sad and earnest, a little boy and a man, pitch-perfect yet raw, is all the listener needs to get started.
“On My Way To Harlem” douses the somber mood entirely. It’s hard to believe this is an original song, written today, and not back in the 1970s in Motown. By the time Porter gets to the meat of the chorus — led by percussion and horns (“I was baptized by my daddy’s horn”), he’s flying and the listener is flying along with him. This song has some of the best lyrics on the planets, cool and effortless, clever and deep without any heavy-handed tricks, classic. Porter said that despite living his formative years in California, he felt “the spirit of the artists that came out of Harlem – from Duke Ellington to Langston Hughes – has so influenced my work that Harlem is as much a part of me as if I had lived there.” He captured that spirit through his soulful filter exactly, as the song does proper justice to the golden era of jazz in Harlem, while keeping the touchstone of today’s rhythmic, dance beat.
Go directly to “Bling Bling” next. A clever, updated jazz effort, Porter brings his scatting, his narrative bits and pieces, and his band’s charge into the proceedings in mesmerizing, tantric cadences. Dizzying horns, slamming drums, janky piano… unbelievable marksmanship. This is the one for future jazz bands to cover and make their own.
This year, Porter earned a second Grammy nomination, a “Best Traditional R&B Performance,” for his fourth track, “Real Good Hands.” This is another song that is hard to believe was written in this century and not back in the 1970s by the Chi-Lites or the O’Jays. It’s a complete, old-fashioned narrative — more specific than all the rest of his songs — sung in a speak-easy fashion, conjuring up the 1976 soul soap “Let’s Just Kiss And Say Goodbye,” made famous by the Manhattans.
For the album’s finale, Gregory Porter goes acapella. Brave enough. But then he goes and chooses Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child,” a tough song to take on with a band behind you. Needless to say, Porter pulls this off, putting an entirely new spin on the tragic, doomed classic, lifting it gently with his deeply understanding, priestly voice. Porter turns this into a parable, one Jesus might’ve sung to his apostles before rising on the third day.
Downbeat envisioned many of the songs on Gregory Porter’s four-and-a-half-star album, “Be Good,” as having “the potential to be this century’s new jazz standards.” Undoubtedly so.