In 2013, Gregory Porter made his debut with jazz’s premiere label, Blue Note, with Liquid Spirit, a record that was just about perfect in its way. Porter had already been nominated for a couple Grammys based on previous work, and Spirit won for Best Jazz Vocal. The singer owns a soulful, flexible, expressive baritone and a gift for writing songs that coo and shout and tell personal stories. And, most amazingly, Porter situates his art in a sweet spot that connects jazz to soul, almost as if it were still the 1960s or early 1970s. Timeless without being archly “retro”, Porter’s aching, surging stuff is just plain moving and real.
Take Me to the Alley mines the same territory as Liquid Spirit — tender, complex love songs, and some serious protest, too — without seeming tired. It is another triumph of heart and soul, another joy to listen to.
This music works so well because it combines three essential elements on nearly every track: a rich and artful voice, songs that combine pop appeal and substance in a Stevie Wonder-ish way, and a production style that is crisp and clear in embracing an “acoustic jazz” sound but has the band play understated arrangements that don’t waste a note. The result is a pop-soul record that has the breathing room and feel of jazz.
And let us acknowledge how rare this is in 2016. Porter is not a jazz singer incorporating hip-hop or a pop singer singing old jazz standards, both relatively common phenomena these days. Nope. Porter is this grand beast from the past: a singer grounded utterly in jazz but whose art is constructed in popular terms, built to be heard by anyone at all, jazz fan or not. All the tools of jazz are here, but the art itself is soulful pop that never gets shallow.
If we break down “In Fashion”, this all becomes clear. A song about feeling left behind by a former lover and needing to “let it go” because “I’m yesterday’s runway passion / No longer in fashion”, it is built on punched quarter-note chords by pianist Chip Crawford and drummer Emmanuel Harold that sound like the famous “Bennie and the Jets” groove. Acoustic bassist Aaron James plays a big role in the holes, and when the chorus comes, you’re ready for the release as Crawford plays a hip, written lick and the song opens up. After two verse-chorus turns, Crawford expands on the lick in tight bluesy style, then another tagged chorus, leading to an out chorus on which Porter scats the lick in conversation with Crawford over a funkier version of the groove. The song is simple, built like a pop song, but it contains elements that come directly from the soul-jazz of the 1960s. And it is catchy as can be.
A few songs here are uptempo and joyous. “Don’t Lose Your Steam” is a stomping tune driven by organ swells and horns that shouts out to Porter’s son to make the family proud as he follows his dreams. The syncopated backbeat is pushed forward by gospel piano figures and Porter’s crying voice. “Fan the Flames” is the closest thing to real “jazz”, starting with a short melody stated by trumpet and tenor saxophone, quickly followed by Porter punching lyrics that urge the listener to “Be sweet now” while working to improve the world. Tivon Pennicott and Keyon Harrold take biting but short tenor sax and trumpet solos over surefire swing.
Most of Alley, however, sounds much more like a record that is trying to grab your heart rather than tap your toes. “Holding On” uses a gorgeously restrained arrangement beneath Porter’s singing: a hushed hi-hat figure on drums keeps the slow bass and piano accompaniment in tempo. Mainly our ears are pushed to that voice: “It keeps holdin’ on / And it’s holdin’ strong / Even though I tried to break it / Heaven knows that I can’t shake it.” It’s a love song about a man who is bruised by his past not giving up. The muted trumpet solo on a third verse adds just the element of piercing meaning that your heart wants.
A number of songs are love songs of a different nature. “Take Me to the Alley” is the story of a leader who eschews “every sort of shiny thing” in favor of visiting “the afflicted ones . . . the lonely ones who somehow lost their way”. The hushed harmony vocal by Alicia Olatuja is just as perfect as the rising bass line that underpins the song’s optimism. “Day Dream” is a quiet groover about Porter’s young son and the way he uses imagination as he plays: “Broomsticks are his magic cars / Climb aboard and you’ll ride the stars / Can you remember, it seems like yesterday?”. “More Than a Woman” is an appreciation of a mother, tender and minor, a song that celebrates mom’s love but that — from its musical tone alone — reminds us that mothers tend to leave us behind. And, again, the alto sax solo by Yosuke Sato beautifully reinforces the feeling without words.
What Porter does best, however, is sing about romantic love in ways that give it gravity and power. “Consequence of Love” harnesses a gospel groove on piano cushioned by a Hammond organ to explain the kind of burden that loving someone places on the narrator. “I will go to the consequence of love / Whatever come what may, the game for me is you / I will fight for the right to be your love / No matter what they say, the game for me is you”, he sings. The song is astonishingly simple, with a repeated chorus of just those few words, but the feeling in Porter’s tone and in the band is perfectly in sync. “I begin to hate time and distance / Because it makes me wait, it’s all I seem to do”. Love seems like a great weight you’d happily carry. “Insanity” has a wonderfully original melody through which Porter threads words that ask his love to “bring your love back to me / stop this insanity / before we go too far”. It sounds like a great Al Green song that happened to have never been heard before. Not bad.
Maybe the most soaring tune is “Don’t Be a Fool”, another gospel-tinged song with a slow-strutting backbeat that asks Porter’s love not to “give your nights to someone else while giving days to someone who really loves you”. The lyrics acknowledge, however, that it’s Porter’s fault. “Why couldn’t I have realized / The gravity of telling lies / Whose weight now shows upon your faceless mouth / I know your heart now and before / I won’t do it any more / Trust in me to fall in love again.” The matters of the heart are, with Porter, the matters of heartbreak. Again, Olatuja etches Porter’s voice with a glow of whiskey and Pennicott is tersely soulful.
Song by song, story by story, Take Me to the Alley proves to be just as good as Liquid Spirit — and all the more a miracle because this kind of “classic” stuff, jazz-infused soul pop that deals with real adult feelings, can’t be easy to toss off or churn out. Every song sounds earned, not just by life but by musical wisdom. Each track may cannily remind us of great music from the past, but the core of each song is original. Porter’s knack for melody is sure, and the musical settings are more truly tailored to the melodies than they are derivative.
Gregory Porter, now four albums into a career that should take him into the ears and hearts of anyone who loves classic American soul music, is a star. He reminds us that jazz and pop music are still good friends if they want to be. He reminds us that a great voice can’t really be explained but has to be heard. And he reminds us that strong music isn’t fashion, bound by its moment, but a feeling available to anyone.
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