Porter Launches Montreal Jazz Festival with Gospel Fervor

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Gregory Porter (left) and Emanuel Harrold perform on June 29, the opening night of the 2016 Montreal Jazz Festival.

(Photo: ©2016 Benoit Rousseau/Festival de Jazz de Montreal)

On Wednesday afternoon, I bumped into Gregory Porter, an unmistakable presence, in the elevator of the Hyatt Regency in Montreal. (Such happenstance encounters aren’t that rare in this hub hotel of the mighty Montreal Jazz Festival.) I told Porter I was looking forward to his show that night, and the ever-gracious singer grinned and said, “I will try to be on my best behavior.”

The many times I have seen Porter onstage, in numerous settings within the jazz world and outside of it, he has always seemed to be on his best behavior, with deep commitment and high energy, usually exploring a strong, mostly original songbook. With his charismatic power, he was an ideal choice to kick off the opening night of the Montreal Jazz Festival, which runs through July 9.

In addition to his previous accolades—which include a Grammy in the Best Jazz Vocal Album category for his striking 2013 album Liquid Spirit (Blue Note) and three consecutive wins in the Male Vocalist category of the DownBeat Critics Poll—Porter can now add the prestigious Ella Fitzgerald Award from the Montreal Jazz Festival.

His Montreal triumph was yet another validation of Porter’s rising status in jazz—and moving into audience areas beyond that specific world, akin to the “fame with integrity” story of Diana Krall (whose own career was nudged into higher gear partly thanks to the Montreal fest).

At the Theatre Maisonneuve on Wednesday, the festival’s intrepid artistic director, André Ménard, handed Porter the award (in the form of a trophy shaped like a vintage microphone). The singer offered a humble, witty acceptance speech, saying, “I’ll take it. It also belongs to my band. It will stay at my house, though.”

True enough: Porter is a singer intricately concerned with his ensemble setting, essentially an acoustic jazz quartet—pianist Chip Crawford (a fine player with a sometimes bothersome tic of tossing in irrelevant quotes, such as the Star Wars theme), alto saxophonist Tivon Pennicott, drummer Emanuel Harrold and bassist Aaron James.

As evidenced live and on the recent album Take Me To The Alley (Blue Note), along with his earlier recordings, Porter’s rich vocal tone and beguiling sense of both control and soulful nuance conjures up an array of icons from the past: the jazz-fluent Bill Withers, pop-to-jazz navigating Nat “King” Cole, Donny Hathaway (whose daughter Lalah has a cameo on Porter’s new album), Marvin Gaye and Johnny Hartman.

A music-conscious but also artistically centered artist, Porter has name-checked a lot of his influences and stylistic alliances in songs, including “On My Way to Harlem” and the funky hymn-like plea for musical truth amidst contemporary music falsities, “Musical Genocide” (“What would James Brown think? Nat ‘King’ Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Curtis Mayfield …”).

Those songs, in the context of a concert at one of the world’s greatest festivals, added a new dimension to the notion of a Porter performance as a diverse, autobiographical portrait. He moved easily from jazz to r&b and frequently invoked the spirit and language of gospel, a foundation for the song “Take Me to the Alley.” Over a mellow, hypnotic groove and bass ostinato, the song’s lyrics celebrated those who extend compassion and connection to the less fortunate (“Take me to the lonely ones/ Who somehow lost their way”).

As a gifted songwriter and interpreter, Porter is in full command of subtleties of phrasing and the power of repetition. He doesn’t scat much, in the pure sense, but a certain liquid spirit (to borrow a phrase) guides his baritone voice in and out of interesting places. At times, it flows so organically, we don’t catch the ingenuity of his musical thinking on-the-fly on first pass.

Balladry is a specialty, and in Montreal, he invested his effective emotive sensibilities into his lovely “Hey, Laura” and the touching “Wolfcry,” which sounds like a modern classic with unique, Porter-ized twists of lyric and melody.

As a first encore, Porter delivered the glowing ballad “Don’t Be A Fool,” from the new album, as a compelling duet with Crawford. For a fitting finale, he led the band and crowd through the rousing, gospel-fired fervor of “Liquid Spirit.”

At 44, the somewhat late-blooming Porter’s star is rising, and deservedly so. Some admirers fear that the pull of pop-style celebrity will steer him away from the jazz element of his vocabulary and into “smoother” quarters, but as heard in Montreal, his artistic aim is true as ever. Ella Fitzgerald would be impressed.

Opening the show was the young singer Jaime Woods in an engaging duet with her brother, the guitarist Solo Woods. Not unlike Porter, the Chicago-born, Brooklyn-based Woods stakes a confident claim on the multi-genre turf of old-school r&b, gospel and jazz flavorings, all done with taste, excellent chops and assurance of her musical mission. Call her a talent deserving of wider recognition.

(Note: For more info on the Montreal Jazz Festival, including a video clip of Gregory Porter’s June 29 performance, visit the festival’s website.)




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