Photo Courtesy of Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
When I first heard Gregory Porter’s “1960 What?”, I thought I had stumbled upon some sixties revolutionary anthem that was unearthed from a tomb forty years ago and then some. Three albums, a Grammy, and a debut on Blue Not Records, Gregory Porter is the greatest voice of our generation. This past Friday night at Town Hall in NYC, I witnessed it first hand. To a packed house, the commanding Porter spoke from his pulpit and proved to old and new fans alike that he wasn’t going anywhere. For those who have not witnessed or heard this gentle giant, bear of a man sing from the very depths of his heart, I urge you to see him perform and listen to his three records. To help build up the excitement of this Valentine’s Day evening, he had the Oakland, CA duo of Chris Turner & Jennah Bell warm the crowd up. Both superb singers, they did some covers which included Bob Marley’s “Turn Your Lights Down Low” Smokey’s “Cruisin’ ” and a fine array of originals. Turner’s “Liquid Love”, a funky Sly influenced piece had the crowd moving in their seats, while Bell’s “Hammer”, an emotional ode to love had the audience in awe. Both performers moved the audience to tears on more than one occasion, including this author. That’s when you know the music is good. If you’re shedding tears during the performance, they’ve more than done their job. A perfect warm up before Gregory Porter.
Porter took the stage, visibly overwhelmed by the support from the audience before ripping into a moving version of “Painted On Canvas”. A short Valentine’s Day anecdote about our Mothers segued into the beautiful, upbeat “On My Way Up To Harlem”. The majority of the set drew from 2012’s Be Good, and included “Work Song” (Nat Adderley cover), “Real Good Hands”, “Our Love”, and “Be Good”, while throwing in earlier tunes from Water such as “But Beautiful”, the audience friendly “1960 What?” (where he politely told some over zealous members of the audience who were screaming for the tune mid set to shut up in not so many words before he went into “Our Love”) as well as the title track from his latest “Liquid Spirit”. He encouraged audience participation, and the mixed crowd of Uptown Boho, Downtown Hipsters and church going Mothers sang with all they had. He was a commanding presence throughout, clapping so hard at one time he knocked the microphone off of it’s stand, overjoyed and filled with the spirit. Dressed in a waistcoat, tie, jacket, jeans, and his signature head cover and newsboy hat, Porter took control of the stage like his parents did as ministers before him. Part Gospel, part Soul, and a whole lot of Jazz, Porter’s sound embodies equal parts Donny Hathaway, Gil Scott-Heron, and Marvin Gaye. His band, Chip Crawford on piano, Yosuke Sato on alto sax, Aaron James on bass, and Emanuel Harrold on drums balance Porter’s vocals out perfectly, not to mention their image is what a proper 1950’s Jazz band looks like. Carrying on the tradition of the old, a classic sound, with lots of improvisation, the band is tight. Multiple solos, which were highlighted by Harrolds’ drums and James’ upright bass (the best upright bass solo I’ve seen), plus the powerful blasts from Sato’s sax and Crawford’s beautiful keys, not to mention Harrold’s brother on trumpet from time to time, further back up the tenacity of this band. I know saying Porter is the greatest voice of our generation is bold, but if a guy (and his damn opening act) can move the writer to tears, it’s game over. The music is filled with such raw emotion, delivered by this spiritual and physical giant, it’s something I’ve never experienced before with a live act. And it seemed that way for many, as fans around me were sniffling through his set. Surrounding himself with the right band, preserving Jazz music (filled with Soul), and doing it right all around, I have not a second thought to say that Gregory Porter is the greatest voice of our generation. This past Friday in NYC he solidified it. If you have a chance to check him out live, please do, his voice and presence will make you a believer of his musical message. You will be a believer.
Check out Gregory Porter’s website here.