By Guthrie Ramsey
Thankfully the smoke has cleared and the tweeting traffic has by now calmed down over jazz artist Esperanza Spaulding’s “controversial” win over teen heartthrob Justin Bieber at this year’s Grammys. Now I can point out another little noted but pleasant Grammy surprise, one that I found just as satisfying. (Not that I can’t sympathize with Mr. Bieber’s young and enthusiastic fan base: after all, for them musical “value” is almost solely equated with accessibility, popularity, and visibility of a certain kind. I get it, really).
When I looked at the list of nominees and saw the Brooklyn-based jazz vocalist Gregory Porter, I was stunned and then thrilled. I first heard the strapping singer sitting in at Bed-Stuy’s now-closed spot called Solomon’s Porch. It was saxophonist Jeff King’s gig and Mr. Porter was called up to perform a couple of barnburners at the end of each set. In that casual setting, I found the voice powerful, the musicianship palpable, and the spirit understated, belying the intensity of his sure delivery. How interesting to see him working in a local café the next week, paying some dues, if you will. We exchanged CDs and some pleasantries, and I went to see him perform a couple more times, wishing him well.
Some time had passed before I would hear that voice again on Newark’s jazz radio station WBGO tearing something up for real, this time, however, on a much better produced recording. Dashed out to buy Porter’s release Water (Motéma Music) and was deeply moved by its execution, the adventuresome material, and the high level of musicianship.
Check out the quiet, molasses-dripped introspection on “Illusion” or his town-crier storytelling on “1960 What?” to get an idea of both his conceptual and emotional range as an artist. It’s no wonder that warm critical reception has followed: it’s rare to find such flat-footed, dare to be different conviction these days. In the context of soulful ensemble playing and polished arrangements (thanks to Porter’s collaboration with pianists Chip Crawford and Kamau Kenyatta), Porter’s tight execution is deliberate and controlled but spirited.
His recent gig at the supper club Smoke in New York allowed me to experience “Porter Live” once again. He has cultivated a dedicated fan base that screams requests and hang on every elongated consonant. The show combined his originals with standards like “Skylark” and John Coltrane’s “Equinox.” Backed by a skillful, squad-deep ensemble featuring Chip Crawford (piano), Aaron James (bass), Emanuel Harrold (drums), and Yoske Sato (sax), Porter’s charisma and ease is obvious as he romped and rolled through the set. But it’s the mechanics of his delivery that rivet your attention when he’s on stage.
Porter perfectly supports his baritone voice with an almost operatic sense of phrasing and contour. He packs a veritable arsenal of vocalizations that range from a wide variety of possible sources: Baptist preacher sermon-esque shouting, Joe Williams’ commanding cool, Bill Withers’ emotional clarity, James Taylor’s intimacy, Donnie Hathaway’s soul melisma, and Kurt Elling’s biting play with consonants (although Porter throws this latter technique much further across the room than Elling). This is not to paint an impression of endless derivation—I find him completely original. It’s just enjoyable to find oneself in a joyful game of connections during the listening act. I hope it does impress, however, that Porter possesses full control of every phrase, every diphthong, every closed-throated vowel deliberately pitched at the top of his range. Unlike one reviewer, I find this latter precious aspect of his artistic signature completely infectious, authentic, and a quality separating him from the overly produced, auto-tuned musical landscape to which a generation has been socialized.
I should mention, too, that his songwriting is eclectic, featuring open cyclic structures that one hears in contemporary gospel and the crafty harmonic progressions of, say, Steely Dan and Andre Crouch circa 1970s. And the poetry: “I’ve been trying to find reality, a grip on the illusion that I lost you, when you left me…(breath).”
And the winner is: Gregory Porter. Check him out below.