Gregory Porter Settles in at Howard Theatre
Certain artists and venues are made for each other. Vocalist Gregory Porter’s inaugural Sept. 12 performance at Washington, D.C.’s Howard Theatre brought that point home. Considering the concert hall’s stature in African-American history and how the singer embodies the powerful soul-jazz crooner legacy, Porter and the Howard Theatre were a match made in heaven.
Two years after emerging onto the global jazz scene, Porter has consistently displayed his prowess not only with his superb albums, but also his scintillating concerts. Now that his sophomore disc, Be Good (Motéma), has solidified his reputation as a significant talent to watch, he gave one of those rare performances during which a new jazz singer carries the night with mostly originals.
As soon as Porter’s ensemble launched into the dreamy waltz “Painted On The Canvas,” the packed house cheered in anticipation before the singer-songwriter had even walked onto the stage. The applause crested louder as soon as he appeared. Porter’s gregarious baritone articulated the wistful lyrics with impeccable diction and tremendous emotional immediacy. In turn, the audience showered him with adulation.
Several of Porter’s songs resonate heavily with D.C.’s predominantly black demographic. He sang about another historic cultural hotbed on the driving “On My Way To Harlem,” but his references to Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye and Langston Hughes—all of whom having significant roots in the District—proved equally germane at the Howard Theatre, as did the song’s underlining theme of gentrification and cultural displacement.
The connection seemed stronger on the Porter original “1960 What?” It mattered less that the tune—a narrative about a city set ablaze by riots in the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination—involved Detroit instead of D.C. The song vividly echoed the District’s 1968 riots, which devastated the city’s U Street. Porter summoned the fury of a community done wrong with religious fervor as Aaron James thumped out an ominous ostinato bass figure and Emmanuel Harrold embellished his feisty drumming with concussive rhythms that sounded like gunfire. Tivon Pennicott’s scalding alto saxophone screams and Chip Crawford’s jagged accompaniment on the keyboards enhanced the song’s agitated theme.
Porter enthralled on the amorous material, too. He swooned the crowd with the elegant “Be Good (Lion’s Song)” before delivering personal anecdotes about its heartbreaking inspiration. When he launched into the old-school monologue on “Real Good Hands” about approaching the parents of his paramour for their approval to marry their daughter, the audience savored the performance. The most moving love song, however, was a pithy keyboard-and-vocal duet rendering of “Illusion.”
The two non-originals—Nat Adderley and Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Work Song” and Wayne Shorter’s “Black Nile”—radiated as well. On the former, Harrold powered the performance with a quicksilver shuffle that suggested drum ’n’ bass, while on the latter, Porter tapered his aggressive vocals with a succinct scat improvisation.
The unbridled enthusiasm of the audience fed Porter’s electrifying performance. But the concert wasn’t glitch-free. At times, Crawford appeared noticeably frustrated with playing an electric keyboard instead of acoustic piano, and some of his characteristic touches and nuanced sonorities didn’t always come through. In fact, the overall sound system was too booming at times, which often nipped the sizzle of Harrold’s ride cymbals; it also obscured some of the more discreet interplay between the musicians.
Those sonic concerns didn’t drown out the audience’s elation. When Porter left the stage after the rousing “1960 What?,” the crowd treated him to a boisterous standing ovation and enticed him to return. For an encore, he sang another powerful original—this time an untitled hard-blues thumper, underscored again with socio-political themes. As the house sang along, it became all the more apparent that at the Howard Theatre, Porter sounds right at home.