Gregory Porter – Take Me To the Alley
(Blue Note 0602547814456. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)
Among the current wave of singers who might be considered successors to Mark Murphy, one of the strongest contenders is Gregory Porter. A native Californian, Porter looked set for a career in professional (American) football, but an injury put paid to that. Instead he carved out a reputation as a singer in New York in the early part of this century and his third album — and Blue Note label debut — Liquid Spirit won the 2014 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal. His second Blue Note album Take Me To the Alley, here presented as a double vinyl set, demonstrates that at the age of 44, Porter is a star set to rise further still.
The record has a lovely warm sound that suits Porter’s deeply soulful vocals, which alternately call to mind Bill Withers and vintage Al Green. The singer is accompanied by his regular musicians, with co-arranger Chip Crawford delivering the spare piano on Holding On and Aaron James playing bass and Emanuel Harrold on drums while Yosuke Sato is responsible for the outstanding, sensual alto sax on Day Dream. Added to this primary team are Ondrej Pivec who provides the springy organ sound on Don’t Lose Your Steam and singer Alicia Olatuja who subtly shadows Porter’s vocals on the dreamy Take Me To the Alley. The title track is certainly one of the finest moments of the album with trumpeter Keyon Harrold playing a solo of pensive ecstasy. This song, which gently eases into the listener’s head and firmly remains there, has a Van Morrison vibe, reminiscent of Morrison’s key 1980s work with Pee Wee Ellis —bringing us full circle to the influence of Al Green.
In Fashion is bouncing, funky and very catchy, with an open sunny sound. Porter performs a relaxed, offhand scat while the rhythm section keep a sparse and laidback beat which is enormously engaging. The track’s stripped-down nature adds to its addictive quality and its lyrics manage to be at once cryptic and affecting. Like virtually all the songs on the album, this is Porter’s own composition. And he’s no mean writer. The songs here call to mind, among others, Joni Mitchell. More Than a Woman is another triumph for the rhythm players, this time more emphatically to the fore, with Aaron James’s bass rich and rounded and profound, Emanuel Harrold’s steady ticking drumming pacemaker-accurate, and Chip Crawford’s piano so tautly synchronised as to be almost subliminal before he emerges to emphasise the tune with chiming notes. There is also an exquisite sax passage (in addition to Yosuke Sato on alto, the album features Tivon Pennicott on tenor).
Blue Note was at one time the home of the finest American jazz recordings. In more recent years the label seemed to have become little more than a deracinated brand name applied, seemingly almost at random, to currently fashionable artists. But with its laudable support of Gregory Porter it would seem the glory days are not over, after all.