Liquid Spirit (Blue Note)
By Devon Wendell
Gregory Porter’s biggest accolades and largest fan base came out of Europe initially. But Porter has made a huge splash in America over the past year with his sophomore album Be Good as well as performances at the top jazz festivals in the country. Porter has a giant cult-like following here in the States and now his new CD, Liquid Spirit is surely going to mesmerize his already established loyal fans as well as gaining some new listeners.
Liquid Spirit is Porter’s third album (his debut on Blue Note Records), which is comprised of poignant originals and some fascinating covers.
Songs such as “No Love Dying,” “Water Under Bridges” and “Hey Laura” are beautiful soul flavored original ballads. Chip Crawford’s delicate piano playing is like an endless cloud for Porter’s sweet yet pained vocals to glide freely atop of. Though Porter is labeled as a “jazz vocalist,” we hear strong soul roots throughout Liquid Spirit. “Musical Genocide” and “Free” pay homage to 70s r&b/funk with strongly punctuated and tightly arranged horn hooks performed by Tivon Pennicott on tenor sax, Yosuke Sato on alto sax, and Curtis Taylor on trumpet. These numbers sound like something from The Isley Brothers, Parliament/Funkadelic and James Brown. But Porter puts his own stamp on the genre with his unique vocal phrasing and understated band sound.
Porter’s lyrics about music that unifies, the igniting powers of love, and the endless struggle for freedom starting from his parents’ generation to the present, are delivered in a down to Earth manner that both young and old alike can understand clearly.
Porter’s spirited rendition of Abbey Lincoln’s “Lonsesome Lover” is one of the album’s many highlights. Porter stays true to the jazz world here with his slick arrangement of this classic and his wonderfully pleading vocals. Yosuke Sato’s alto sax solo is fantastic, venturing into the avant-garde.
The title track is pure gospel with call and response horn riffs and joyful hand clapping. Unlike many other of today’s jazz vocalists, Porter does not run from his blues and gospel roots but instead incorporates them in many of his performances without sounding forced or overproduced. This is certainly the case in Porter’s reading of Billy Page’s “The In Crowd” (popularized by Ramsey Lewis) in which Porter belts out some no-nonsense blues and soul with ease and confidence. Like a virtuoso instrumentalist, Porter has the sort of great command and control of his voice that is rarely heard in any genre of music anymore.
“Wolfcry,” “Brown Grass” and “When Love Was King” are some of the finest ballads Porter has recorded to date. Porter’s vulnerability, compassion, and wisdom give these love songs the forever quality that artists like Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder all possessed. With all of the posers out there and their over use of melismatic vocal runs, Porter is the real thing, a true master who understands that there’s more strength and skill in timbre than the forced, off- key runs that have plagued the r&b world.
Liquid Spirit ends with the Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne standard “I Fall In Love Too Easily.” Of the thousands of versions of this composition recorded over the years, this is one of the all time greatest. Porter weaves in and out of the piano changes played by Chip Crawford with sensuality and sensitivity that is as powerful in its dark sparseness as Miles Davis’s muted trumpet on ballads recorded from the mid-’50s through the early ’60s. Porter’s use of space and time on this track alone puts him in the ranks with some of the all-time greatest vocalists in both jazz and r&b.
Liquid Spirit is a brilliant demonstration of a master artist who is constantly growing and pushing himself to newer and greater heights. This album is also a more cohesive work of art than his previous two albums, Water and Be Good. Gregory Porter just keeps getting greater and greater.
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