Gregory Porter – Water – Motema Records 233797 audiophile stereo double-vinyl, 77:40 ****:
(Gregory Porter – vocals; Chip Crawford – piano; Aaron James – bass; Emanuel Harrold – drums; Chuck McPherson – drums; Melvin Vines – trumpet; Curtis Taylor – trumpet; Yosuke Sato – alto saxophone; James Spaulding – alto saxophone; Kafele Bandele – trumpet; Robert Stringer – trombone)
California native Gregory Porter has made a significant impact in the realm of jazz vocalists. His debut album (Water) on Motema Records was nominated for a Grammy. He was an original member of the Broadway cast of “It Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues”. With his distinctive baritone and debonair “flat-cap”, he represented a link between old school jazz and modern song. Porter has a songwriting vision that touches on family life and social politics. In 2013 he received a Grammy for Liquid Spirit. Now based in Brooklyn, Porter has become a staple of the New York jazz scene. In 2013, two of his albums (Water, Be Good), have been re-issued on audiophile vinyl by Motema.
Water (originally released in 2010) is an accessible portrait of an emerging jazz artist. Porter (who wrote a lot of the material and co-arranged with pianist Chip Crawford and producer Kamau Kenyatta) engages in a variety of jazz styles. There are soulful, heartfelt ballads (“Illusion” and “Water”). The former (a voice/piano duet) explores the philosophical nature of romance and the latter has a redemptive, gospel feel. Porter has a potent baritone voice, but is capable of tender expression. As he collaborates musically with his band, the tempo is upbeat. “Wisdom” has a flowing, hypnotic dynamic with an inspired piano solo (Crawford) and invokes a refrain reminiscent of “Wade In The Water”. Wayne Shorter’s “Black Nile” is bop swing with sprightly tenor saxophone and trumpet solos. Porter allows the band to achieve its own musical explorations. He executes nimble scat vocals and covers standards like Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” and Burke/Van Heusen’s “But Beautiful” (a second duet with piano) with panache and significant interpretive range.
Water is not a perfunctory jazz vocal album. The focal point of this album is the mesmerizing “1960 What?”. Combining a gritty socio-political vision and propulsive funk grooves, a realistic (and less romanticized) narrative of 60’s race struggle is detailed. Compelling imagery of a burning Detroit and MLK assassination are greeted by the title declaration. There are soul/jazz hooks including a call and response vocal. Also solos on trombone and trumpet(which have a Hugh Masakela vibe) turn up the heat. The song captures the incendiary “protest” tradition of soul artists like Marvin Gaye, Gene McDaniels and Gil Scott-Heron. The jam features emphatic instrumentation and relentless cadence. There is also a remix with a subtle electronic edge. The finale to Water is an a capella reworking of “Feeling Good” (from the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse musical, The Roar Of The Greasepaint – The Smell Of The Crowd). Porter exudes a “work song” spiritual elegance with his glowing vocal. [Our February drawing/giveaway this year was for six copies of this vinyl album…Ed.]
Side 1: Illusion; Pretty; Magic Cup
Side 2: Skylark; Black Nile; Wisdom
Side 3: 1960 What? ; 1960 What?
Side 4: But Beautiful; Lonely One; Water; Feeling Good
Gregory Porter – Be Good – Motema Records 233796 audiophile stereo double-vinyl, 62:09 ****:
(Gregory Porter – vocals; Chip Crawford – piano; Emanuel Harrold – drums; Kamau Kenyatta – soprano saxophone; Kenyon Harrold – trumpet, flugelhorn; Yosuke sato – alto saxophone; Tivon Pennicott – tenor saxophone)
Porter’s next album, Be Good (2012) has an explicit soulful approach to most of the tracks. Utilizing many of the same Water musicians, he ruminates about growing up (“Painted On Canvas” which features a lesson piano solo by Crawford), family life (“Mother’s Song”) and letting go of parental ties (“Real Good Hands” which showcases Tivon Pennicott on tenor). The vocals are warm and consistently precise. When Porter goes up tempo, the ensemble responds with hot licks. “Bling Bling” feels like bop swing and percolates with a galloping bass, drum solo and Crawford piano magic). Porter is a gifted songwriter and “On My Way To Harlem” is proof of that. With a Latin tempo, he creates an historical “shout out” to the importance of Harlem culture. This cut has a dazzling horn arrangement (Kamau Kenyatta) which includes solos by Pennicott, Kenyon Harrold (trumpet/flugelhorn) and Yosuke Sato (alto saxophone). The references to Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye and Langston Hughes are moving. Throughout Be Good, Porter’s vocals reflect sophisticated timing and phrasing.
Side Four boasts two brilliant covers of jazz standards. The iconic Nat Adderly/Oscar Brown Jr., “Work Song” is given a big band treatment with horn/reed-infused muscle. Porter starts out the piece with a wailing vocal. Eventually the group transitions into swing with a brisk tenor saxophone solo (Pennicott) and one on bass (Aaron James). There is nothing restrained about the vocals, Porter simply cuts loose. He closes dramatically with an elegiac, a capella version of the Billie Holiday classic, “God Bless The Child’. It is a bluesy lullaby, that exudes tenderness.
Both of these double albums have superior audio quality. Porter’s voice is captured in deep, rich tones. The horns and reeds are mellow, not shrill or overly piercing. The stereo separation is balanced and layered appropriately to surround the vocals. Gregory Porter will appeal to jazz vocal aficionados and perhaps those who prefer instrumental jazz.
Side One: Painted On Canvas; Be Good (Lion’s Song); On My Way To Harlem
Side Two: Real Good Hands; The Way You Want To Live; When Did You Learn; Imitation Of Life
Side Three: Mother’s Song; Our Love; Bling Bling
Side Four: Work Song; God Bless The Child