“Despite being at the crest of a 25-year career, during which he has been called ‘the standout male jazz vocalist of our time’ by the New York Times, among many other awards and accolades, he is modest about his achievements and self-critical to a fault. At one point in our conversation he blurts out, ‘Man, I sure wish I could sing better.’” My cover story from the May 2020 JazzTimes.
Category Archives: Gregory Porter
Thanks to everyone who attended my jazz history talks last week on the Queen Mary 2 during its voyage from Quebec to Nova Scotia to New York. I got a few requests to post the playlists, so here’s the first one, covering “The Great Jazz Singers (1950-Present).”
The Great Jazz Singers (1950-Present) Playlist
- “A Tisket, A Tasket” – Ella Fitzgerald w/Chick Webb Orchestra (1938).
- “Blue Skies” – Ella Fitzgerald (from Get Happy, 1959)
- “You Make Me Feel So Young” – Frank Sinatra, w/Count Basie Orchestra conducted by Quincy Jones (live video, 1965)
- “Tenderly” – Sarah Vaughan (live video, 1958)
- “I Fall in Love Too Easily” – Chet Baker, from Chet Baker Sings (1958)
- “Chega de Saudade” – João Gilberto from album Chega de Saudade (1959)
- “Every Day I Have the Blues” – Lambert, Hendricks & Ross w/Joe Williams and Count Basie (live video from Playboy’s Penthouse TV show, 1959)
- “No Love Dying” – Gregory Porter (live video from CBS This Morning 2013)
- “I Wish That I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate” – Cecile McLorin Salvant (live video from KNKX Public Radio, 2014)
- “Marrakesh Express” – Accent (video from AccentVocal.com, 2018)
- “Look For The Silver Lining” – Tony Bennet & Bill Charlap, promo video for album of the same name, 2015
…but, rather, here are my favorite albums of 2016. Why the distinction? I think it’s silly and self-aggrandizing for anyone, however expert their ears, to say “These are the 10 best albums of the year.” I get that people, myself included, have an insatiable appetite to rank things, perhaps to make the world seem a little more orderly. But music is not science. Its virtues resist quantification.
Many 10-best lists seem to me primarily driven by critical notions of what sounds the most innovative, hence the usual bias toward the avant-garde. That’s fine. But I feel that jazz (and music in general) is not primarily about innovation or progress. It should appeal to the heart as well as the head.
I do prize originality and think jazz should sound new and of its time. But that newness is all about individuality, not some intellectual conceit of progress. A great album or song should sound like the honest expression of no one but this artist. There’s another practical reason I don’t call these “the best” albums: there are many hundreds of jazz and jazz-related CDs issued every year. Nobody can listen to everything, and I don’t pretend to have heard them all.
The list that follows is an expanded version of the one I supplied to The 2016 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll. The NPR poll showed, by the way, that there is essentially no critical consensus on what the year’s “best” albums were. The album that came in first place, Henry Threadgill’s Old Locks and Irregular Verbs, received a mere 41 votes out of the 137 critics and journalists polled.
Here are my favorites, the albums I heard this year that moved me on a personal, emotional and intellectual level. Maybe they will move you, too.
1. Trio Corrente, Vol. 3 (Independent release) – Using Brazilian pop and folkloric building blocks, the Sao Paulo-based trio of Fabio Torres (piano), Paulo Paulelli (bass) and Edu Ribeiro (drums) make joyful music of wild originality with jaw-dropping rhythmic precision. They shared a Grammy award in 2014 with clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera for the album Song for Maura. Still they are my candidate for the best band that almost nobody in the U.S. has heard of. (In the U.S. you can hear their most recent albums on Spotify.)
2. Peter Bernstein – Let Loose (Smoke Sessions) – A great album by one of my favorite guitarists. With fabulous backing by pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Doug Weiss, and drummer Bill Stewart, Bernstein is free to “let loose” like a horn player, and, boy, does he.
3. Gregory Porter – Take Me to the Alley (Blue Note) – The burnished baritone returns with a new batch of originals that take his songwriting to a whole new level.
4. Bill Charlap – Notes from New York (Impulse) – The new album from the impeccable pianist is a master class in class. I have given only three albums five stars. This is one of them.
5. Tillery (Rebecca Martin, Becca Stevens, Gretchen Parlato) (Larrecca Music) – Tillery combines the talents of three of today’s most interesting singer-songwriters: Becca Stevens, Rebecca Martin, and Gretchen Parlato. On their debut album, the exquisite songs defy easy categorization; maybe that’s why I like them so much.
6. George Coleman – A Master Speaks (Smoke Sessions) — The 80-year-old tenor saxophonist, a NEA Jazz Master and Miles Davis Quintet alumnus, released his first album as a leader in 20 years with an all-star band – and it’s excellent.
7. Snarky Puppy – Family Dinner, Vol. 2 (Decca-Ground Up Records) The jazz-rock-funk collective from Denton, TX is highly popular, and deservedly so. Led by bassist/arranger Michael League, these guys have big ears for great music from all over the world. Here they are with singer/songwriter Becca Stevens and the Swedish band Väsen, playing a song by Stevens.
8. Cyrille Aimée – Let’s Get Lost (Mack Avenue) – A fabulous performance by the French jazz singer with the unforgettable voice.
9. Fred Hersch – Sunday Night at the Vanguard (Palmetto) – Another brilliant outing by one of the best piano trios in jazz.
10. Jack DeJohnette • Ravi Coltrane • Matthew Garrison — In Movement (ECM)
11. Trio da Paz, 30 (Zoho) – Celebrating its 30th anniversary as a trio, the Brazilian expatriate supergroup of guitarist Romero Lubambo, bassist Nilson Matta and drummer Duduka da Fonseca continues to impress with its unique blend of Brazilian and American jazz.
12. Roberta Piket, One for Marian (Thirteenth Note Records)
13. Catherine Russell – Harlem on My Mind (Jazz Village)
14. David Bowie – Blackstar (Columbia)
15. Caetano Veloso & Gilberto Gil – Dois Amigos (Nonesuch)
My Favorite Reissues or Historical albums:
1) Bill Evans – Some Other Time: The Lost Session from The Black Forest (Resonance Records)
2) The Savory Collection, Vol. 1 (Apple Music)
3) Miles Davis Quintet: Freedom Jazz Dance: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5 (Columbia/Legacy)
Favorite Vocal Album:
Cyrille Aimée – Let’s Get Lost (Mack Avenue)
Favorite Debut album:
Jacob Collier – In My Room (Membran/Qwest)
Favorite Latin jazz album:
Trio Corrente, Vol. 3. (Independent release)
Honorable mentions: Joey Alexander – Countdown (Motema); Leslie Pintchik – True North (Pinch Hard); Nels Cline, Lovers (Blue Note); Dave Stryker – 8 Track II (Strike Zone); Kenny Barron – Book of Intuition (Verve) ; John Scofield – Country for Old Men (Impulse); Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau – Nearness (Nonesuch); Ted Nash – Presidential Suite (Motema); Russell Malone, All About Melody (HighNote)
Since my first DownBeat cover story on singer/songwriter Gregory Porter back in August 2013, he’s come in first place in the male vocalist category of both the DownBeat Critics and Readers polls every year, ahead of such heavyweights as Tony Bennett and Kurt Elling.
His new album, Take Me To The Alley (Blue Note), has cemented his reputation in Europe, where he is already a top crossover star and major concert draw. Maybe 2017 will be his breakout year in the U.S. mass market. In honor of his latest win in the DownBeat Readers Poll (December 2016) here’s my second feature article about him from the June issue. In it we talk about his booming career, new album, and how fame has changed his life.
By Allen Morrison, from DownBeat, Feb. 2016
For seven days in late October/early November, one of the hippest jazz clubs on the planet was no jazz club at all, but rather Cunard Lines’ flagship Queen Mary 2, during the inaugural Cunard/Blue Note “Jazz at Sea” Festival, during a transatlantic crossing from Brooklyn to Southampton, England.
Accompanied by label president, bassist/producer Don Was, the musicians onboard included some of Blue Note Records’ biggest names: singer Gregory Porter, pianist Robert Glasper, and the Blue Note 75th Anniversary Band, an all-star group featuring Glasper, bassist Derrick Hodge, drummer Kendrick Scott, guitarist Lionel Loueke, saxophonist Marcus Strickland, and trumpeter Keyon Harrold, subbing for Ambrose Akinmusire. Other players onboard included drummers E.J. Strickland and Mark Colenburg, pianist Fabian Almazen, keyboardists Michael Aaberg and Federico Peña, guitarist Mike Moreno, and bassist/singer Alan Hampton.
Cunard has scheduled two more transatlantic crossings featuring Blue Note stars on the luxurious, 2,500-passenger ocean liner in 2016: westbound departing Southampton on August 1 and eastbound from Brooklyn on October 26.
The inspiration for the partnership was Cunard’s, according to Stanley Birge, vice-president of Cunard, N.A. By booking some of the world’s most prominent jazz artists, the passenger ship line, long known for its cultural programming, is trying to appeal to current customers but also to attract a new generation to the cruise line, he said.
The partnership was anything but inevitable, and success was not assured. The venerable British company, which is celebrating its 175th anniversary, is among the most tradition-bound of cruise lines, with a customer base that skews older and includes a high percentage of Brits. Blue Note, celebrating its 75th year, has a different kind of tradition, one of defying convention and expanding the boundaries of jazz. This made for some odd juxtapositions – for example, fox-trotting older passengers in formalwear in a ballroom immediately next door to a nightclub presenting forward-leaning jazz units led by Lionel Loueke or Derrick Hodge.
“Honestly, there was some fear, before we left the dock,” Was said in a shipboard interview, seated by a window in a quiet corner while watching the North Atlantic roll by. He described warily eyeing the passengers as they queued up to board the ship. “There was a disparity between who you’d perceive the jazz audience to be and who was getting on the ship. But it’s been incredible, man! The idea was to give people a taste of something exotic – but that didn’t mean they’d like the taste of it. There was no guarantee. But I think it’s been hugely successful,” he said, noting the growing numbers of passengers showing up for the nightly jazz sets and stopping him in the hallways to express their appreciation for the music.
The experiment got off to rather a shaky start after dinner on the first evening, on the stage of the ship’s 1,094-seat Royal Court Theatre, with the odd combination of a typical cruise ship revue and straight-ahead jazz. The show featured a decidedly un-hip quartet of singers in musty, English music-hall-style recitations of “The Good Life” and “Mack the Knife” (done mambo-style), performed to a canned Midi soundtrack; the big finish involved showgirls in extravagant feathered costumes. After about a half-hour, incongruously, Don Was appeared in his usual shades, dreadlocks and cowboy hat. “How many of you are familiar with Blue Note Records?” he asked. A smattering of applause. “How many are jazz fans?” Another smattering.
After explaining a bit of the Blue Note label’s history and assuring the audience that “you don’t need an advanced degree; jazz is a conversation,” he introduced the Blue Note 75th Anniversary Band, calling them “the best jazz musicians in the world.” (No pressure.) The atmosphere seemed a little tense as the band came out and silently took their places, no one knowing how this would fly with the cruise passengers. They launched into Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround,” with a series of playful solos that sometimes left conventional tonality behind. It was a statement, almost defiant, that there would be no compromises. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of the audience headed for the exits during the extended soloing.
Nevertheless, by the time they took the stage again a few nights later as the evening’s main performers, the 75th Anniversary Band had made a few adjustments, incorporating more familiar jazz standards like “So What?” and “In Your Own Sweet Way,” to meet the audience halfway. “I thought they were most generous in understanding that a large portion of the audience was uninitiated,” Was said. “They played half of Kind of Blue last night!” he laughed. “It was really fun. It’s not something they would normally play.” This time the audience remained for the whole show and responded warmly.
That response peaked over the next two nights with several appearances by Porter, the crowd-pleasing featured performer. He was backed by the 75th Anniversary Band, in a tight, soulful set featuring brief but tasty solos by the all-stars (a full review will be posted online). Other small group performances in various venues – a mid-ship lounge called the Chart Room, the G-32 night club, and a movie theater/planetarium – featured Glasper’s trio, and groups led by Kendrick Scott, Marcus Strickland, Loueke and Hodge, among others. They drew a growing audience of passengers as the voyage progressed, attracting both the minority who were jazz fans prior to sailing and many new converts.
On the question of whether the paring of Blue Note and Cunard would win new customers to Blue Note or help the label sell more CDs, Was was thoughtful. “My overall feeling, speaking not as a music fan but as a label president, is that selling records to consumers is not a viable business anymore. So I’m very interested in new ways to…monetize the music – or else it’s gonna end. So this is a radical, futuristic model for how everybody can make a little bread, and you can bring in new people to hear the music.”
Gregory Porter recently headlined the first Cunard/Blue Note Jazz at Sea transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2, backed by the all-star Blue Note 75th Anniversary Band. Here’s a shipboard interview I conducted with the Grammy-winning singer/songwriter, in which he talks about playing with such an elite band and his forthcoming album, his second for Blue Note.
Here’s the first of my reviews of the Cunard/Blue Note “Jazz At Sea” Festival on the Queen Mary 2, from DownBeat.com, focusing on singer/songwriter Gregory Porter’s show with the Blue Note 75th Anniversary Band. The transatlantic crossing featured performances and interviews with Porter, pianist Robert Glasper, label president Don Was, and a dozen more Blue Note Records artists. My overall review of the week-long crossing will appear in the February print edition of Downbeat.
In late October, I was thrilled to be invited by DownBeat Magazine to cover the inaugural Cunard/Blue Note “Jazz at Sea” cruise – a transatlantic crossing from Brooklyn to Southampton, England aboard the Queen Mary 2. Don Was, the president of Blue Note Records for the last four years, came along to present some of his label’s stars – Gregory Porter, Robert Glasper, and the all-star Blue Note 75th Anniversary Band. It was Don’s first cruise, and he thoroughly enjoyed it. So did I. I’m writing several pieces about the cruise, one for the print edition (cover date: February), and others for the DownBeat.com website. The first of them will probably appear this week – a review of Gregory Porter, backed by the Blue Note all-stars. I’ll post them as they appear.
My DownBeat cover story on singer/songwriter Gregory Porter is out now. Read it here. Or better yet, support print journalism, and buy it at a newsstand (Barnes & Noble carries it). Lots of great stuff in the issue, including coverage of the Montreal and Toronto jazz festivals (I wrote the latter) and tons of interesting record reviews.
RT @amorrison2 “#GregoryPorter’s “Liquid Spirit” drops Sept 17. Happy to say my profile of him is cover of Oct #DownBeat, out soon. ” Gregory Porter – Liquid Spirit video