CD Review: Gregory Porter, Donald Smith, Mansur Scott, Paul Zauner’s Blue Brass - Great Voices of Harlem

Gregory Porter, Donald Smith, Mansur Scott, Paul Zauner’s Blue Brass - Great Voices of Harlem
(PAO CD 11210. CD Review by Alison Bentley)

Three huge voices and characters who’ve paid their dues in St. Nick’s Bar in Harlem, Manhattan: Gregory Porter (the youngest, much loved in the UK) and the lesser known Mansur Scott (Harlem born) and Donald Smith. The fourth big personality is the superb band, led by Austrian trombonist and festival organiser Paul Zauner and his Blue Brass: the thoughtful arrangements make the 7-piece line-up sound massive. Zauner brought them all together for a European tour, culminating in this fine album.

Porter’s voice sounds marinated in honey on the ballads. 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow' and 'Mona Lisa' have luscious arrangements, with Gil Evans-like mutes and flutes. Porter’s voice is warm and inviting with dramatic dynamics, heartfelt as he ad libs in high falsetto, ‘Why can’t I fly?’. His voice blends with the other instruments, never fighting them, as sumptuous in tone as Klemens Pilem’s alto flute solo. The darker harmonies undermine the voice’s warmth, reminding us that Mona Lisa can be a ‘cold and lonely, lovely work of art’. In the hard bop Moanin’, Porter takes on Jon Hendricks’ mantle, swinging and scatting effortlessly and joyously between the nifty horn riffs and the elegant arabesques of Barney Girlinger’s trumpet solo.

Mansur Scott’s autobiographical tale ('Doing Hard Time') of working on a chain gang reveals the roots of his lived-in voice. He speaks the words with a preacher’s cadences, over chords recalling Adderley’s Work Song. He’s urged to work harder by a Reverend who has ‘a gun down his sock and a Bible in his hand’. In 'Stella by Starlight' Scott sounds as if he’s tugging the notes out of the air- as if each one costs him something. The arrangement is dreamy but Scott sings the words ‘not a dream’ with great emphasis and energy, contrasting with Zauner’s lovely, melancholy trombone solo.

In 'Days of Wine and Roses', Scott’s voice bounces off the springy walking bass (Wolfram Derschmidt) and Klemens Pilem’s fab sax solo, just slurring the speedy notes. You can hear so much jazz history in his singing - he even worked as a percussionist and flautist with Lee Morgan and Charles Mingus. Scott sings more introvertedly in 'Song For My Father', with some Eddie Jefferson-like scat singing alongside Martin Reiter’s tumbling bluesy piano. The contrast between the immaculate horn arrangements and Scott’s free, uninhibited phrasing is wonderful.

Donald Smith recorded extensively in the 70's with his brother Lonnie Liston Smith. Expansions, with its irresistible Curtis Mayfield groove, is a reworking of their 70's hit, where Donald Smith sang and played Fender Rhodes. Howard Curtis’ drumming is tight and driving behind the bubbling keyboards. It’s especially delicious when Smith’s dry-toned, gritty vibrato voice merges with the long trailing horn lines, as sax, trumpet and voice squeal and jam together over the coda. Smith belts the laid-back funky 'Watermelon Man' like an African chant over the gutsy horns, phrasing punchily like a percussionist. In 'My One and Only Love', Smith pulls the timing around the way Betty Carter used to (she’s been a great influence on him) before breaking into vocal multiphonics over the smooth backing lines and mysterious bass clarinet (Klaus Dickbauer). His voice leaps in a heart-stopping moment from high falsetto to a deep bear-like bass.

All three sing on the Third Stream-style arrangement of Horace Silver’s 'Peace', and the contrast between their voices is fascinating: Scott’s staccato, Porter’s legato and Smith’s dramatic vocal jumps.

These three wonderful singers continue the Harlem tradition with their very different styles- and the exquisite arrangements, fine ensemble playing and sparky soloing.

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