Gregory Porter’s rich, sturdy baritone is filed under jazz in large part because singers have to be called something; those “genre” fields don’t fill themselves out, people.
It’s true that Porter won exceedingly deserved jazz vocal Grammys for 2017’s Take Me to the Alley and 2014’s Liquid Spirit (and odds are pretty good on a third for his new tribute album, Nat “King” Cole and Me), all of which arrived via Blue Note. But while his big, booming voice is worthy of gold, filing it under jazz leaves out more than it lets in. Porter wields command over a vast range of genre fields, as he proved in a gleaming and diverse Saturday night set at the Palladium: Rare is the performer who can conjure Cole’s ghost, lead his own band through a steam-train version of “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” and close by gorgeously damning an industry complicit in “musical genocide” all in a baritone that booms as much as it comforts.
Porter’s glistening Cole tribute record is certainly straightforward jazz — and a rare-ish example of interpretation, as he’s cast himself more as a singer-songwriter. But his previous work is plentifully steeped in soul, funk and the gospel of what sounds like a reasonably seedy Bakersfield, California, background. On Saturday, he waited exactly zero minutes to show off that mix, opening with “Holding On,” a track he’s recorded with the British electronic duo Disclosure. (Porter’s is the kind of weighty but comfortable timbre that lends itself nicely to electronic remix treatment.) He used the track to find the space between jazz and Barry White; he laid a little behind the beat, while his musicians, including saxophonist Tivon Pennicott and pianist Chip Crawford, glittered behind him. The intent was pretty clear: To find the edges of jazz, and push them around a little.
To that end, “Take Me to the Alley” arrived as a slowed-down, simmering gospel, extended enough for Porter to tell a tale of his mother cooking dinner on Thanksgiving morning before promptly wrapping it in foil and delivering it to the homeless near her street. But midway through the track the hyperdrive kicked in, and the musicians brought it to a boil, accented by military-march snare patterns from drummer Emanuel Harrold that might not have been political, but probably was. A ferocious “On My Way to Harlem” galloped along to a tribute to Marvin Gaye, “Don’t Lose Your Steam” proved a Bill Withers-inflected jam, and the band’s “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” was a steam train preceded by a giddy mixtape of a bass solo from Jahmal Nichols.
Porter hasn’t been shy in in saying in interviews how Nat “King” Cole served as a replacement father figure in his life, and his takes on “Nature Boy” and “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” were rich with due reverence. But his encore of “Mona Lisa” hit the skies almost immediately; when Porter left a silence in the song, the quiet in the hall was complete enough that you could almost hear the rain outside.
It might have been the lousy weather outside, but the Palladium was a more-than-comfortable fit for Porter; early in the night, he glanced around to remark that it “feels like someplace in Europe.” And he spent the duration with a hat pulled low; at least from my vantage point, I never saw his eyes all night, the gracious host who appreciates the value in leaving a touch of mystery.
But nowhere was his accessible power more evident than “I Do Not Agree,” his nicely deployed broadside against sonic inauthenticity — “Give me a blues song, tell the world what’s wrong / And the gospel singer, giving those messages of love, and the soul man, with your heart in the palm of his hand” — before singing of a roster of influences/innovators that reached from Sammy Davis Jr. and Sarah Vaughan to James Brown and Earth, Wind and Fire. Fierce and purposeful, it cried for a broader return of authentic funk, soul, and blues while, as a nice bonus, reminding everyone he’s good for all three.
Gregory Porter’s Setlist:
On My Way to Harlem
Take Me to the Alley
Don’t Lose Your Steam
(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons
Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone
I Do Not Agree
When Love Was King