When I saw Wynton Marsalis’s 2013 version of his masterpiece, Blood on the Fields, I was also waking up to a killer talent in vocalist Gregory Porter, a baritone with a soulful texture and a flexibly athletic control that (frankly) made the original vocalist in the part—no less than the legendary Jon Hendricks—seem like an amateur. How had I not heard of this guy before?
Great question, because Porter had already been nominated for two Grammys based on his first two recordings on Motema Music. Anybody with ears who’d heard the guy had jumped out of their seat. Including Blue Note president, Don Was, who snatched up Porter and then had the wisdom to let him record his major label debut with his regular band, recording mostly his own tunes.
Was also signed the incredible Jose James to Blue Note, though James’s recent stunner was not really a proper jazz record. Porter’s Liquid Spirit, however, is absolutely a jazz record—a record of gorgeous, propulsive, lyrical story-songs that allow his soulful voice to ricochet from Joe Williams to Stevie Wonder, from Kurt Elling to Donnie Hathaway. This is the kind of jazz that grabs snatches of gospel, blues, and soul with fluid skill. But the freedoms that Porter takes with time, his combination of supreme vocal control and masterful tonal variety, his willingness to sing with an aching vulnerability—those things make it jazz. Well, that and a killer acoustic rhythm section and a hip pair of saxophonists that spice up several tunes. The good kind of jazz. The kind that moves you.
So, romantics, here is a new jazz record filled with love songs that overflow with a tender sadness. Like “Hey, Laura”, where Porter sings to a woman, “Sorry that I had to ring your doorbell so late / But there’s something bothering me / All night long I just couldn’t wait / With a healthy dose of make believe / Go ahead and lie to me and make me believe / That you’re in love with me / And this fool can see that the rivers of your love flow uphill to me.” It’s set over a simple set of chords, a ghostly organ whisper, and a stuttering snare pattern that keeps you hopeful through the sadness.
Or how about this gorgeous pop ballad that ought to be covered immediately by someone like Adele so that it becomes as famous as it is good—“Water Under Bridges”, a duet with pianist Chip Crawford that etches a minor melody that, on its own, catches your heart. When Porter sings, “Do you remember the days we used to spend? / Memory so strong it keeps me from moving on / If I could go back, I’d take our worst days / Even our worst days are better than loneliness”, the heart breaks.
“When Love was King” is a dead-slow ballad that purports to tell the story of a long-ago era when love “rescues souls lost in the sea…he threw a line before they sank and gave the thirst ones a drink.” “Brown Grass” is a little gospel groove that is the monologue of a man who “made a mess of the life I had with you”—and it contains a beautifully played tenor saxophone solo by Tivon Pennicott. Each of these songs tells a quick tale that cuts right to your own experience.
But not everything on Liquid Spirit is tender sentiment. The title track is a gospel tune set over insistent hand claps and punctuated by grooving saxophone figures—all of which leads to a glorious and rollicking piano solo by Crawford. “Musical Genocide” is a slice of jazz-funk that pits a steady eighth-note strut in Crawford’s right hand against a syncopated bass figure, wrapped around a cry of defiance. And if you like an old-school groove, Porter’s cover of Ramsey Lewis’s “The In-Crowd” is simply righteous fun.
This recording is such an easy pleasure. It goes down smooth, but that may simply be slight-of-hand. This kind of talent is rare. Porter’s songs are sturdily built to last. His melodies don’t sound like copies of other classics—so they just might be classics. And when Porter does something you already know (like, dig the closer, a lovely and original treatment of “I Fall in Love Too Easily”), he makes it stunningly his own.
Gregory Porter is now flat-out in the jazz spotlight. Where he deserves to be. What that means, commercially, in 2013 may be limited. But now that he is recording for the art form’s marquis label, Porter has the chance to change the art, to enrich the audience, to sing from a higher mountaintop.
Liquid Spirit is a beautiful extension of that clarion cry.