“I think listening to the freedom of Ella’s voice soaring over melodies inspired me and helped open my mind at a young age. We had stacks of records too. I would listen to album after album and heard so many renditions of songs. I didn’t have a favorite. I loved hearing all the expressions each artist had. I listened to them all.”
No matter what Seattle jazz vocalist Stephanie Porter sings, she does it with a kind reverence for the material and its oral history. The lady raised on all kinds of music can sing all kinds of music, with all kinds of musicians, which makes her a Northwest favorite amongst a notoriously picky roster.
Well-versed in disco (Hit Explosion) but a darling of standards, Porter first took the jazz community by storm with her first hit out of the gate, the 2003 album, “Mood Swings.” The aspiring jazz vocalist who would sing and dance with generations in her family growing up, and later sneak into jazz clubs at 19 to sit in with established bands—always waiting for the hook, made critics sit up and take notice of her throaty throwback style.
Down Beat/Jazz Times music critic Harvey Siders loved “Mood Swings,” saying of Porter: “[she] is one of the most complex individuals and unpredictable singers I’ve ever met. But, to know her is to love her; she’s the paragon of honesty … Lord, how this lady sings.” Northwest’s KPLU-88.5 FM loved Porter’s singing on the album so much, DJs put several tracks on their rotation for nationwide airplay.
Porter does it again with her 2010 release, IndiMusic.com’s Top 25 for 2011, “How Deep Is The Ocean?” IndiMusic.com writer Peter Braidis couldn’t get over Porter’s vocal depths. “Porter can sing like no tomorrow to be blunt. She has stunning depth and range and never overdoes it or overstays her welcome. … It is truly a pleasure to listen to a nod to the distant past of American music that sounds genuine and sincere. And, what a voice to do it with. Truly outstanding. [September 21, 2010]”
All of the 11 tracks on this album are classics that receive respectful, if a bit tentative, fangirl treatment by Porter and her band — pianist Zyah Ahmonuel (whom she sang with on her first paying gig in 1993 at Tacoma’s Cheers West), bassist Dan O’Brien, and drummer Steve Yusen.
Clearly evident throughout is Porter’s tender respect for the songs that made jazz singers great and jazz itself greater, Gershwin, Rogers and Hart, Ellington and Russell… It’s as if she’s snuck into the Blue Note in jazz’s heyday and got to sing these classics for the first time before an audience. There’s a charming, undeniable mix of innocence, awe, and fear of shaking things up the way a fusion-minded hotshot might. Everything’s played straight for the most part, with a few, blessedly happy touches in some of the arrangements, reflecting the singer’s own starry light. For purists, it’s heaven.
“At Last” turns into quite a Brazilian style romp, a break from the intense sob story of Etta James’ version. It’s faster paced, dance-worthy, and again, light. Instead of dwelling in the past of “my lonely days…,” this one’s all about the brighter present, “and life is like a song.” To Porter, it seems lighter is better. The piano and percussion here accent that happy dance unobtrusively.
What Porter does on “Speak Low” is her original stamp. She takes it apart in sections, building a slow-moving, sensuous, but intentional mood of question and answer, temptation and withdrawal. Her voice is never more liquidly hypnotic, going down smoothly like a fine, full-bodied cognac.
Even when Porter’s supposed to take on a dramatic downturn, as in the pensive, lost regret of “Where Or When?” or the abject forlorn state of “I Can’t Get Started,” she can’t help but play it like an excited ingénue. The piano parts of this Gershwin/Duke song amplify the simplified lyrics and dream sequence in spare, poetic blissful notes. Her voice is best suited to songs like this.
Where Stephanie Porter goes weak is when she doesn’t do enough with the familiar, beloved classics. Where is she in “Love For Sale?” “Love For Sale” isn’t enriched by the weak arrangement highlighting a Nursery Rhyming, prancing, mincing piano — unlike “I Remember You,” which opens resplendently — and a full-on blistering percussion streak that seems out of place. That weird piano, in two choppy notes, sticks to the melody thread like saccharine-sweet toffee, rendering the entire song entirely too off-off-Broadway, a desperate cry for attention instead of jazz.
There isn’t any sense of irony in the selling of “Love For Sale” either. It’s sung straightforward, note for note, word for word, which is unfortunate, because Porter could do so much more.
“How Deep Is The Ocean” is just creepy. The ominous piano refrain — not the solo — comes straight out of a horror movie, displacing the rising love anthem. But the solos, piano and bass, are solid.
Stephanie Porter has a lovely voice. But she has a tendency to go vibrato, which, if you like that sort of thing, is the bee’s knees. Too much however, as in the opening number, “Love Me Or Leave Me,” just kills the mood. The song then becomes distracting, waiting for the next Ethel Merman blowout. Porter already has a nice voice without the extraneous, unnecessary vibrato action. Otherwise…