There is no better spokesperson today for mining the rich veins of the spiritual (as it connects to the roots of jazz and blues) than the talented vocalist Gregory Porter and his simpatico band mates. When we last saw Porter, he and his compatriots came to the Regattabar in Cambridge, MA. in Spring 2012 to perform a show of stunning ballads and kinetic jams all garnered from Porter’s exquisite 2010 recording, Water [Motema Records]. At their show, Porter and his band blasted through a version of Wayne Shorter’s “Black Nile” with a ferocity and passion that almost toppled tables and chairs in the wake of Porter’s propulsive shouts, scats and hand claps, alongside Emanuel Harrold’s volcanic drums and Yosuke Sato’s alto sax outbursts. Another highlight of this show was Porter’s performance of his original composition “1960 What?” which appears on Water as an extended jam and is one of the highlights of the recording.
In concert, Porter sung this ballad with an intense fervor and spirituality as his vocals concentrated in low tones and lustrous territory that was the perfect vessel for delivering this dignified and spirited ballad about the burning of Detroit following the assassination of Martin Luther King. Porter also displayed his meditative side in performing a tender ballad (dedicated to his minister mother) that involved long held soulful calls intertwined with soft piano and bass accents. Although little known at the time, Porter established himself with this 2010 performance as a vocal presence to be reckoned with. Water was a highlight recording of 2010 and remains a superb audiophile recording with its qualities of tactile image dimensionality, explosive dynamics and the capturing of the spirit of this music in all of its dignified, unfolding beauty.
Porter and his band have continued to evolve their art and they now are true stars of the jazz world, signing recently with Blue Note. In Paris, posters announcing Porter’s latest recording, Liquid Spirit [Blue Note] lined the walls of the metro stations this fall and Liquid Spirit has now been nominated for a Grammy and other accolades. The band that appeared at the Regattabar has remained intact and their synergistic journey with Porter continues to bear fruit as evidenced by their dazzling work on Liquid Spirit. Here is another audiophile gem, with collaboration from several stalwarts of the recording world, including engineers Mark Wilder, Jay Newland and the Sear Sound Studio team. The recording, (like its predecessor Water), captures the radiant warmth of Porter’s vocals in a lush and immersive recording space. The recording also captures Chip Crawford’s piano and Aaron James’ bass in natural size and tactile presence.
And what about the music? It is stunning in the breadth of its vision: the hard driving R & B of the title track; the soulful ballads of “Hey Laura,” Brown Grass” and “Water Under Bridges” and the pulsating rhythms of “Free.” Each of these numbers offers their own individual rewards and each illustrates the beautiful synthesis between vocalist and band that leads to territory both propulsive and contemplative. Porter and his band collectively achieve a tight focus to their groove and a versatile command of any style that they aim to ensnare. Porter’s take on Billy Page’s classic R & B tune, “The In Crowd”, finds Porter singing buoyantly (with a sense of youthful wonder) while Crawford plunges into a swirling piano solo equally bluesy and whimsical. In contrast to this light pop, there is “When Love Was King,” a slow brewing gospel ballad sung by Porter with deep and solemn gravity. Aaron James’ pungent bass lines coil around Porter’s quiet ferocity and lend motion to the telling of this urgent tale.
The missteps on Liquid Spirit are few. “Lonesome Lover” has a predictable sense of circular motion with little development (apart from Yosuke Sato’s fiery sax lines) and “Musical Genocide” never really takes off from its first momentum. But these missteps are overshadowed by the consistent quality and wonderment found on all of the other tracks on this recording. “Liquid Spirit” ends gloriously with “I Fall In Love Too Easily,” a ballad that engages Porter with his trio singing in his lushly immersive style. Every nuanced vocal melds beautifully into the fabric woven by the band as each chord and vocal note unfolds naturally in its own pacing, like the spilling of “liquid spirit” over all it touches.