Friday, May 18, 2012

Be (Real) Good (Hands)

With his first (Grammy nominated) album 'Water,' Gregory Porter (no relation) served notice that he was an force to be reckoned with on the Jazz horizon. Not only with his genre defying, emotionally charged voice, but with his lyric writing as well. On the title track 'Water' Porter penned;

"Water pouring down the sidewalks/
cleaning windows clear to see/
washing gumdrops downside gutters/
resting chains and saving me/
greening gardens, drowning ants/
changing rhythms, bruising plants/
graying vistas soulfully . . . "

A lovely catalogue of images so perceptively captured is much more likely to be found in a poem than a song these days. So with the arrival of his Kamau Kenyatta produced sophomore effort "Be Good" a great deal was expected of Mr. Porter. And he has not disappointed, accompanied by his long-time bandmates Chip Crawford (piano), Emanuel Harrold (drums), Tivon Pennicott (tenor saxophone), and Aaron James (bass), Porter serves up one of the most organic, earthy and spectacular albums of the year thus far. If you haven't heard him, his voice can travel to all the rooms of the musical house; Jazzy stylings in the foyer; Blues in the cellar; Soul in the kitchen; Gospel in the attic; he's got grit and silk, brassy belts and velvety baritone rumbles. Three of the project's twelve cuts are Standards; "God Bless the Child" here delivered a capella is a testament to his ability to invest a lyric with his personal style and trademark emotional sincerity; on "Work Song" he carries the rhythm as he swings his hammer of a voice into the steel spikes of the song's notes; "Imitation of Life" is perhaps the only tune where his reading can be considered derivative, hewing closely to Earl Grant's original (Nat King Cole influenced) performance, albeit in a lower register. Although all three are superbly done, it's on the nine original tunes that Porter's supernova talent truly explodes. These include the plaintive "Painted On Canvas"; the uptempo playful romp of "On My Way To Harlem"; the soulful ballad "Real Good Hands"; the Donny Hathaway inducing "The Way You Want To Live"; the beautiful reminiscing of "When Did You Learn"; the earthy earnestness of Mother's Song; and the Bebop stomp of "Bling Bling". All of these songs are impeccably attired in the tasteful artistry of a combo that is tighter than three linebackers in the back seat of a Cooper Mini and committed to bringing out the very best in each tune. But two of the compositions really stand out for me. Opening with solo piano, "Our Love" is a song worthy of the Bill Withers' canon with its deceptively simple lyrical structure;

"They think we're weak, you're the reflection of my love/
We're incomplete, but you're the direction of my love/
Vultures are flying round the ramparts of, the towers of our love/
Don't it sound sweet, Our Love."

The second verse builds on the riff until a sort of emotional narrative emerges, Porter's voice may be the steak glistening in the center of the plate, but Chip Crawford's piano work forms the salt crystals that contrast with the black pepper flakes of Aaron's James bass and Emanuel Harrold's rhythmic garnish. Too much sauce would drown the subtle flavors of a great cut of beef and the ensemble clearly understands this, embellishing where needed, but otherwise showing perfect artistic discipline and allowing the tune itself to be savored. Porter doesn't sing notes, he breathes music in a way that only true artists can. His pitch or breath control are never in question, his vocal technique flawless. But by far the most impressive part of his singing is his ability to make you believe every eighth note, every syllable. He sings with an emotional gravity that must be heard to be truly understood. While his baritone has impressive range and multiple timbres, he employs it so subtly that one can be excused for not noticing how many octaves he has traversed or how many textures employed. There are many expertly painted eggs in this Easter basket of an album, but the one that most bears the imprimatur of Picasso is undoubtably the title track "Be Good (Lion's Song)." From the multiple facets of the lyric to the pure carats of the instrumental backing to the sheer sparkling addictiveness of the melody, this stone is the star of the setting. If such a thing as a blues waltz didn't exist before, it does once the bass line begins its acoustic saunter down the steps of the song's marble staircase three at a time. Skirting the surreal, the words tell a tale as old as the human heart-unrequited desire. The lyric is simply amazing, free of cliche, advancing by turning on itself and spiraling into a tale of heartbreak. When Porter pleads "Does she know what does, when she dances around my cage?" The question both is and isn't rhetorical, and the ache in his voice is enough to lubricate even the driest of eyes. This is a song for the ages, an instant standard, a contemporary classic. One wonders what Cassandra Wilson or Dianne Reeves or Al Jarreau could do with it, not to mention Ahmad Jamal, Sonny Rollins, or Wynton Marsalis. But for now this is Gregory Porter's masterpiece, bearing his signature alone. If there is any justice at all in this world this song will somehow find a place in the rotation of radio stations and thus the wide audience it so richly deserves.

Crawford's piano and Pennicott's sax both deserve extra mention for how they manage to shine both in support of Porter's voices and in their own brilliant solo moments. The album sounds as though every song was recorded with the entire ensemble present, as opposed to being laid down track by track. Producer Kamau Kenyatta can feel free to take as many bows as he wishes for a job extraordinarily well done.

Listen, go to the store right now and buy a pound of (Porter's) love. I believe it's on sale.

And until next we meet, may all your potatoes be sweet (and dusted with cinnamon).
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