Photo ©Monterey Jazz Festival/Tomas Ovalle
Blue Note Records has announced the remarkable major label debut, Liquid Spirit, from GRAMMY®-nominated jazz and soul singer Gregory Porter. The 14-track album is further justification for Porter’s quick ascent into the top ranks of jazz and R&B singers today, and it also features 10 new originals which showcase Porter’s innate gift for writing poignant songs based upon personal experiences with a relatable and emotional immediacy. Also included is a stirring rendition of the jazz standard “I Fall In Love Too Easily,” as well as covers of Abbey Lincoln’s “Lonesome Lover” and Ramsey Lewis’ hit “The ‘In’ Crowd.”
“I firmly consider myself a jazz singer but I enjoy blues, southern soul, and gospel,” says Porter. “Those elements make their way inside my music. And I’ve always heard them in jazz.” Indeed, Porter wields one of the most captivating baritone voices in music today. It emits enormous soul that conveys both the emotions and intellect of any given song without relying on vocal histrionics. In The New York Times, Nate Chinen wrote: “Gregory Porter has most of what you want in a male jazz singer, and maybe a thing or two you didn’t know you wanted.” Jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater praised Porter in the pages of JazzTimes by saying, “We haven’t had a male singer like him in a long time. He’s such a wonderful writer. He tells these great stories.”
On Liquid Spirit, Porter retains the same core musicians that accompanied him on his previous two albums – pianist and music director, Chip Crawford, drummer Emanuel Harrold, bassist Aaron James, alto saxophonist Yosuke Sato, and tenor saxophonist Tivon Pennicott. On a few selections, Porter complements that ensemble with trumpeter Curtis Taylor, and organist Glenn Patscha. Producer Brian Bacchus also returns, as well as arranger and associate producer Kamau Kenyatta.
Porter sees Liquid Spirit as a logical progression in his burgeoning discography as it touches on some of the same themes, particularly the highs and lows of romance, his childhood, and socio-political observations. More pointedly, he views the title-track, a rousing, hand-clapping gospel-jazz romp, dealing with replenishing “thirsty” listeners with more substantial music, as the flipside to last year’s “Bling Bling,” a blistering song on his previous album Be Good on which the protagonist had so many artistic gifts to give but no one to give them to. Similar sentiments occur on “Musical Genocide,” on which Crawford hammers a dark rhythmic figure against James’ bluesy bass accompaniment as Porter declares his refusal of accepting the insistent squashing of quality, diverse music and culture by a mainstream in favor of disposable, homogenized pap.
In part, these songs are based upon Porter’s reflections on new fans, worldwide, who come to him saying, “Where have you been?” or “How come I’ve never heard you before.” “Not saying that I am ‘what is,’ Porter says, “But I think maybe what I’m doing is what people actually want to hear. There are some people who want that liquid spirit – a soulful, thoughtful sound – and they haven’t been getting it.”
Raised in California, Porter’s mother was a minister, and he cites the Bakersfield Southern Gospel sound, as well as his mother’s Nat King Cole record collection, as fundamental influences on his own sound. Porter began singing in small jazz clubs in San Diego while attending San Diego State University on a football scholarship, where he played outside linebacker. Eventually it was music that Porter chose to pursue full-time at the encouragement of local musicians including his mentor Kamau Kenyatta.
Kenyatta invited Porter to visit him in the studio in Los Angeles, where he was producing flutist Hubert Laws' album Remembers the Unforgettable Nat King Cole. When Laws overheard Porter singing along while he was tracking the Charlie Chaplin song "Smile," he was so impressed with the young singer that he decided to include Porter on the album.
Another fortunate twist of fate was the presence that day of Laws' sister, Eloise, a singer who was soon to join the cast of a new musical theater production It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues. Porter had minimal theatrical experience but was cast in one of the show’s lead roles when the play opened in Denver, and he eventually followed it to Off-Broadway and then Broadway, where The New York Times, in its 1999 rave review, mentioned Porter among the show's "powerhouse line up of singers.” It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues went on to earn both Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations that year.
Porter eventually put down roots in Brooklyn, and in 2010 released his debut album Water (Motéma Music), which earned a GRAMMY nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album. His sophomore album Be Good (Motéma Music) followed in 2012 and earned him his second GRAMMY nomination for Best Traditional R&B Performance.
Despite having now recorded or shared the stage with the likes of Van Morrison, Wynton Marsalis, Dianne Reeves, Nicola Conte, Christian McBride, Kenny Barron, Buster Williams and David Murray, Porter remains grounded and humbled by all the new accolades. “Sometimes I haven’t had a chance to absorb and enjoy some of the audiences that I’ve been in front of, especially some of the icons of the music like Wynton and Herbie,” Porter says, “And they give me so much open-arm love; I couldn’t fathom that two years ago.” With the release of Liquid Spirit, Porter’s soaring career will surely ascend even higher.
“Gregory Porter has most of what you would want in a male jazz singer, and maybe a thing or two you didn’t know you wanted.” – The New York Times
“Porter fuses jazz and soul better than anybody working these days… We are only one month into 2012 and we may have already heard the album of the year. Very Highly Recommended.” – Soul Tracks
"Warmth coats every line of Gregory Porter's intimate jazz and soul debut. Hints of Nat King Cole bleed through Porter's articulate phrasing, but the weight of Joe Williams and the spiritualism of Bill Withers resonates, too....Porter's conviction and traditionalism....delivers another refreshing, contemporary male jazz voice worth savoring." – Creative Loafing Atlanta
"The versatile Porter's Water leaves you awash in enticing grooves."
– USA Today