LTL Excerpt 2: Future Voices in the Present: Gregory Porter

(from Learning to Listen: Reflections on 58 Great Singers)

 Within vocal  jazz Gregory Porter (b. 1971) may advance the genre forward through synthesizing the roots of jazz—gospel, blues, swing and improvisation—with more contemporary modes including songwriting prowess and an affinity for classic R&B. Appreciating Gregory Porter is greatly aided by understanding trends among jazz influenced male pop singers and in post ‘90s R&B.  Since Harry Connick’s commercial success in the late 80s/early 90s a slew of transparent would-be Sinatras have emerged. Michael Bublé became a massive pop star by mixing slick covers of standards and pop tunes with original soft rock ballads and a Rat Pack aura; crooner-pianists like Peter Cincotti and Tony DeSare have struggled to make a mark commercially and culturally; Jamie Cullum dwells somewhere between obvious crooner aspiration and genuine experimentation. The relationship of these performers to jazz and blues is slight—pop comfort is far more salient to their sound than improvisation. On the opposite spectrum are those patterned after the innovative bop artistry of Jon Hendricks and Mark Murphy. Traces of their  sound informs aspects of Al Jarreau’s music but Kurt Elling, Giacomo, Gates, Tom Lellis, and J.D. Walter are among the more obvious disciples with Elling being the most prominent among them.

                                  Photo image: www.gregoryporter.com

                                 Photo image: www.gregoryporter.com

Porter instantly stands out from the pop-oriented crooner by virtue of repertoire (mostly original), arrangements (typically small groups), and his decision to improvise.  He also injects aspects of blues and R&B into his phrasing rarely heard in crooner pop. He is a remarkable crooner with a burly baritone capable of producing tender grace notes as well as riffing like a soul shouter and instrumentalist all at once. Elements of classic R&B singers Donny Hathaway, Lou Rawls, and Bill Withers, can be heard in Porter’s incendiary writing and vocal tone. Yet he never sounds like a mere nostalgic, which is one of the pitfalls of neo-soul arrangements, and he is miles beyond the faceless cartoonish music of contemporary male R&B singing which tends toward slickness, vulgarity,  braggadocio, and lover man clichés—often at the same time in the same song. By avoiding these traps he stands apart immediately out as a unique artist…

 …2010’s Water is so fully realized and deeply personal it’s hard to believe it’s a debut. Only someone with a strong sense of musicianship and self-awareness could accomplish its remarkable sense of balance. Porter mixes giddy love songs, and aching torch songs with several impressionist sketches of African-American diasporic history. These include “Wisdom,” an ancestral evocation that integrates snippets from the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” a swinging, ebullient vocal version of Wayne Shorter’s “Black Nile,” and the album’s highlight: the searing stop-start song “1960 What?” that laments the endurance of Detroit’s urban blight and malaise in contemporary society.   He and his band interplay impeccably serving as a perfect percussive foil. Porter is a spare lyricist; this quality allows him and his co-arrangers Chip Crawford and Kamau Kenyatta to provide ample space for soloists. Porter favors structures where the band states the musical theme, Porter enters, singing and telling the story, and then the band shifts into lengthy solos, often by multiple instruments, followed by a lyrical restatement of the theme. The solos provide a sense of emotional release and both music and lyric unite in service of the theme…

 …2011’s Be Good has a more anthemic R&B inflected approach than Water, but duplicates the range of moods and tones, and balances the contributions of vocalist and band. Porter is a gifted composer who uses metaphors artfully, and explores more vulnerable emotional territory than most writers of standard pop-jazz fare who usually focus on love. Musically he focuses more on mood and rhythmic feel than hooks, and writes melodies that lean in a folk-soul direction. These provide space for an almost parlando style of speak singing…

 …2013’s Jazz Vocal Grammy winner  Liquid Spirit reiterates all that is great about Porter—it’s musically diverse, he is in excellent voice, and he and the band operate seamlessly. The title track is a classic call-and-response anthem focused on equality and triumph premised on the notion: “Let the liquid spirits free/The folks are thirsty.” “Free” is his most autobiographical song, especially in the way he honors his parents which extends the ancestral theme of “Wisdom” and “On My Way to Harlem.”… 

 

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