Gregory Porter: Liquid Spirit

The best "new" jazz singer around makes his Blue Note debut.

Gregory Porter

Liquid Spirit

Label: Blue Note
US Release Date: 2013-09-17
UK Release Date: 2012-09-02
Label website
Artist website

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.





'Everything's Gonna Be Okay' Is  Better Than Okay

The first season of Freeform's Everything's Gonna Be Okay is a funny, big-hearted love letter to family.


Jordan Rakei Breathes New Life Into Soul Music

Jordan Rakei is a restless artistic spirit who brings R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and pop craft into his sumptuous, warm music. Rakei discusses his latest album and new music he's working on that will sound completely different from everything he's done so far.


Country Music's John Anderson Counts the 'Years'

John Anderson, who continues to possess one of country music's all-time great voices, contemplates life, love, mortality, and resilience on Years.


Rory Block's 'Prove It on Me' Pays Tribute to Women's Blues

The songs on Rory Block's Prove It on Me express the strength of female artists despite their circumstances as second class citizens in both the musical world and larger American society.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 3, Echo & the Bunnymen to Lizzy Mercier Descloux

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part three with Echo & the Bunnymen, Cabaret Voltaire, Pere Ubu and more.


Wendy Carlos: Musical Pioneer, Reluctant Icon

Amanda Sewell's vastly informative new biography on musical trailblazer Wendy Carlos is both reverent and honest.


British Folk Duo Orpine Share Blissful New Song "Two Rivers" (premiere)

Orpine's "Two Rivers" is a gently undulating, understated folk song that provides a welcome reminder of the enduring majesty of nature.


Blesson Roy Gets "In Tune With the Moon" (premiere)

Terry Borden was a member of slowcore pioneers Idaho and a member of Pete Yorn's band. Now he readies the debut of Blesson Roy and shares "In Tune With the Moon".


In 'Wandering Dixie', Discovering the Jewish South Is Part of Discovering Self

Sue Eisenfeld's Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery.


Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.


Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.


Pokey LaFarge Hits 'Rock Bottom' on His Way Up

Americana's Pokey LaFarge performs music in front of an audience as a way of conquering his personal demons on Rock Bottom.


Joni Mitchell's 'Shine' Is More Timely and Apt Than Ever

Joni Mitchell's 2007 eco-nightmare opus, Shine is more timely and apt than ever, and it's out on vinyl for the first time.


'Live at Carnegie Hall' Captures Bill Withers at His Grittiest and Most Introspective

Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall manages to feel both exceptionally funky and like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.


Dual Identities and the Iranian Diaspora: Sepehr Debuts 'Shaytoon'

Electronic producer Sepehr discusses his debut album releasing Friday, sparing no detail on life in the Iranian diaspora, the experiences of being raised by ABBA-loving Persian rug traders, and the illegal music stores that still litter modern Iran.


From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the latest Doctor Who series have more in common with Harry Potter's childish wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry's original techno-utopian dream.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.


Emily Keener's "Boats" Examines Our Most Treasured Relationships (premiere)

Folk artist Emily Keener's "Boats" offers a warm look back on the road traveled so far—a heartening reflection for our troubled times.


Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".


On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.