Gregory Porter - with Jamie Cullum
(Big Top. Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 5th May, 2012. Review by Luke Davidson)
Those who came to hear it certainly loved it, every person capable of standing up standing up to express their roaring approval of the extraordinary set that they had heard. Cheltenham Jazz Festival audiences are not the most demonstrative, but there was no mistaking their excitement and pleasure; they made sure that the Festival’s Big Top - a venue both capacious and strangely intimate - echoed, if tents can echo, with applause. So what was it that stirred the listeners so deeply?
Was it the appearance of Jamie Cullum, our own dynamic jazz master and Guest Director of the Festival, who blended art and showmanship, modesty and projection, as he performed alongside one of his ‘finds’? Or was it the passionate exuberance of Grant Windsor, a piano player luxuriating in a scintillating technique through which flowed ideas and phrases that delighted and exhilarated in equal measure? Or, perhaps, our own Ben Castle, whose tenor saxophone is revelatory, spinning solos of such dominating musicality, such uncompromising feeling, and such unfailing rightness that he burnished everything he blew over?
Or was it the voice, that voice that - without any hint of affectation or pastiche - conjures up the spirit of Marvin Gaye and the soul singers of the 1960s and 1970s, and represents them to us, rich and true, in a jazz setting. Gregory Porter, a leonine presence in front of the band, wearing his trademark black peaked winter skullcap, and daring a frilly salmon shirt (above)that would have outshone Teddy Pendergrass and Lou Rawls, was righteous and tender, imposing and reassuring, urgent and easy. It is a tribute to Jamie Cullum’s skill and expressivity to say that he held his own with Porter in their duet in ‘On My Way to Harlem’. But Cullum’s chainsaw bass and gravel mid-range served to help us appreciate even more Porter’s soul pedigree, its tenderness, warmth, and power. Oh, yes, it was the voice.
And if it was the voice, it was the voice supremely expressive in a wonderful collection of songs: Porter’s songs. Porter’s own material dominated the set. He began with the opening song from his album Be Good, ‘Painted on Canvas’, and ended with his ‘1960s What?’ He didn’t need to call on the assistance of ‘God Bless the Child’, ‘Skylark, or ‘But Beautiful’, mastersongs from the Great American Songbook that veneer his records. Will Porter’s songs, in turn, become standards? Will they sustain remodellings by lesser musicians and lesser singers? I don’t know. What I do know is that he has refreshed the protest song, the spirit of the 1960s and 1970s, and given it back to us, without any heavy-handedness, without any anachronism, but with poetry.
And it was incredibly exciting. His band’s performance of ‘Black Nile’, the Wayne Shorter classic, which he sings on his first album, Water, pushed the band to a tremendous pitch of intensity, Porter using the opportunity to show us his scatting chops. And, ultimately, the entire set was moving. Without fanfare, without histrionics, the music settles into somewhere deep and shakes you. I was not the only one who walked out choked: both my fellow Festival-goers admitted to having shed tears. Porter is Good News. He’s going to stay news.
Gregory Porter’s CDs Water and Be Good are released on Motéma records.