The first time Gregory Porter performed aboard the Queen Mary 2, during the inaugural voyage of the Blue Note/Cunard Jazz at Sea Festival in late October, no one knew quite what to expect – not the largely uninitiated cruise passengers who filed into the ocean liner’s opulent Royal Court Theatre; nor the minority of jazz fans in attendance; nor Porter and the all-star Blue Note 75th Anniversary Band, who backed him during three performances on the seven-day transatlantic crossing. Porter had been a late substitution for the better-known Natalie Cole, who had canceled for personal reasons. As a result, relatively few of the 2,500 passengers had booked the cruise knowing much about him, and some were disappointed at Cole’s absence.
Almost from his first notes, however, everyone breathed a sigh of relief: Porter was clearly up to the task.
The 44-year-old from Bakersfield, CA, a striking figure as always in his three-piece suit, black Kangol hat and balaclava, stirred the cruise passengers with his big-hearted baritone and his unerring taste and timing. What was more impressive, however, was his ability to win them over with a program composed entirely of unfamiliar original material. That points to Porter’s greater gifts as a songwriter – his marriage of throwback soul, gospel and jazz, and the authentic emotion of his highly personal, poetic lyrics, that allows him to connect with diverse audiences.
Porter’s regular back-up band is terrific, however his shipboard shows with the Blue Note 75th Anniversary Band – Robert Glasper on piano, Lionel Loueke on guitar, Keyon Harrold (subbing for Ambrose Akinmusire) on trumpet, Marcus Strickland on tenor sax, Derrick Hodge on bass, and Kendrick Scott on drums – were something else again. The all-stars effectively transformed themselves into one of the best back-up groups since the Basie band backed Sinatra.
The all-stars began the show, stretching out with a brief but pungent opening set including the funky jazz fusion of Scott’s “Cycling Through Reality” and the Brubeck standard, “In Your Own Sweet Way.” On the latter, after a percussive piano intro by Glasper, Harrold and Strickland entered, dragging the beat and adding a bit of attitude to the familiar tune. The West African-born Loueke, in a solo that drew equally from Afro-pop and jazz, employed altered chords that sounded less from another continent than from another planet, prompting the horn players to smile at him in wonder.
After being introduced by label president Don Was, the singer began with a haunting ballad from his next Blue Note album, “Take Me To The Alley,” with a lyric about caring for the “the afflicted ones, the lonely ones that somehow lost their way.” In “On My Way to Harlem,” a gospel-inflected shouter, the supergroup, locating its groove as Porter’s soul-jazz band, allowed Porter his first chance to scat, something he does rarely by exceedingly well, leaving the audience wanting more.
For “Hey, Laura,” a throwback Philly-soul ballad that could have been a hit for the Chi-Lites, Loueke used his guitar to trigger churchy Hammond B-3 chords that complemented Glasper’s piano, and Strickland testified with a huge soul tenor solo.
Porter went a long way toward turning the sedate cruise audience into congregants on the showpiece, “Liquid Spirit,” leading them in enthusiastic hand-clapping (yes, on the 2 and 4), then soaring gloriously into his goosebump-inducing upper register, while Glasper, on a busman’s holiday, enthusiastically pumped out the gospel chords.
The next night, having already proven he could win over a ocean liner full of fresh ears, Porter and the musicians seemed looser. The band opened with a muscular, authoritative version of Wayne Shorter’s “Witch Hunt.” Their second warm-up number threatened to steal the show: Derrick Hodge’s mesmerizing dirge, “Message of Hope,” featuring a hushed vocal by Loueke that, with the help of a T.C. VoiceLive harmonizer box, he transmuted into a heavenly choir.
Porter expanded the set list for his final show to include Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father,” allowing himself to more fully explore his jazz leanings. Following the closer “No Love Dying,” Porter received a standing ovation and the audience demanded an encore, something I have rarely witnessed at a cruise ship show. A beaming Porter and the all-stars obliged with a vigorous rendition of Shorter’s “Black Nile” that featured excellent solos by Harrold and Strickland, and Porter engaging in the freest and most satisfying vocal improvisation of the week, displaying his true stripes as a jazz singer.
If Porter and the Blue Note band’s week at sea had begun with a note of apprehension, it ended on a note of triumph on the last day of the cruise, as newly won fans of all ages and nationalities queued up in long lines to get CDs and vinyls autographed by the musicians. One passenger, a middle-aged lady from Manchester, waiting patiently in line with her friend to get her copy of Porter’s Liquid Spirit signed, said, “We hadn’t heard of him before the cruise, but now we’re quite taken with him.”