Gregory Porter exploded onto the international music scene with his debut CD, Water in May of 2010, and has racked up a continuing stream of amazing accolades and awards. Porter’s Watergarnered a ‘Best Jazz Vocal ’ Grammy® nomination (a rare feat for a debut recording), rocketed to #1 on both iTunes and Amazon in the UK and soared onto an international array of year-end ‘Best Of’ lists for 2010 in several genres, and within a scant 15 months established him as a formidable international touring artist. Now BE GOOD, his sophomore release has gained even more acclaim, plus a GRAMMY® nomination in a crossover R&B category.
With Be Good, released on February 14, 2011, Porter surpassed the heightened expectations of his follow up to Water. Featuring Porter’s winning combination of “outstanding original songs, erudite lyrics and social comment, top drawer musicianship and improvisation, and a voice to die for” (Jazz Wise), Be Good is a musical compendium of groove-driven delights, ranging from quiet ballads to up-tempo burners, from romantic charmers to powerful, blues-tinged anthems. When his song Real Good Hands was selected as Itunes Song of the Week, over 200,000 new fans downloaded the song and were introduced to his signature soul-influenced jazz. Now that song also gained him a much deserved Grammy® nomination for best Traditional R&B Performance.
Be Good finds Porter surrounded by the core of his powerhouse working band, with whom he recorded his Grammy® nominated debut, and who have performed with him for over three years now: Chip Crawford on piano, Aaron James on bass, Emanuel Harrold on drums, and Yosuke Sato on alto sax. Under the sure hand of producer Brian Bacchus, Porter and the band rise to new heights on Be Good,which is further fueled by richly emotional horn arrangements by the CD’s associate producer and musical director, Kamau Kenyatta, who producedWater and who continues to play an important role in Porter’s sound. Kenyatta also performs on one track (“Painted on Canvas”) and guest instrumentalistsKeyon Harrold on trumpet and Tivon Pennicott ontenor sax are also featured throughout.
Porter tapped the prodigious talents of veteran producer Brian Bacchus for Be Good. Bacchus, whose A&R successes have included Norah Jones’ Grammy® -winning Come Away with Me, as well asCassandra Wilson, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Wild Magnolias, and Joe Lovano’s tribute to opera legend Enrico Caruso, Via Caruso, and who has produced projects for acclaimed jazz artists including Randy Weston, Lizz Wright, Richie Havens, Ronny Jordan, and Patricia Barber, first met Porter through a mutual friend. The two immediately recognized a shared sensibility, a sense of musical camaraderie that resulted in a strong in-studio collaboration.
“Gregory is the real deal and a revelation in terms of new male jazz singers, but I think that his voice coupled with his songwriting may be the thing that leaves most listeners with their mouths open,” says Bacchus. “There have been many solid singer songwriters coming from under the jazz umbrella of the last 10 years that are mostly brimming with folk and country influences. Gregory is the first that I’m hearing that is squarely coming out of a real classic soul bag (i.e. Bill Withers, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway) as a songwriter, but with both feet firmly planted in jazz’s soil.”
A disarmingly sincere performer, with a groove that never quits, a voice of incredible virtuosity and a seemingly universal appeal as a songwriter, Porter’s lyrics often speak as dreams do, in the languages of image and emotion, to communicate thoroughly though not always directly. His objective as a songwriter, he says, is “to create a sincere message about my feelings on love, culture, family and our human joys and pain.” Even in conversation he leans toward the poetic: “Just like the song ‘Painted on Canvas’ says, ‘I’m ‘made of the pigment of paint that is put upon’ …trying to be honest and organic in my colors that I show.” Be Good clearly attains that goal, and also proves to have a wide palette of colors to show.
The CD’s opening track, the song mentioned above, masterfully primes the canvas of Porter’s sophomore release. Gentle as a bedtime story-teller, his vocals weave seamlessly in and around the warm tones established by his core band, enhanced by the sparkling threads of Kamau Kenyatta’s tenor sax and Chip Crawford’s impressionistic pianism. “Be Good, (Lion’s Song)” (the leading single from the album) has been a favorite at Porter’s live shows for some time, here finally making its much anticipated recording debut. The upbeat tribute “On My Way to Harlem” percolates with the vibrant cultural energy of the Harlem renaissance figures that once walked the streets near St. Nick’s Pub, where Porter’s working band came together and where he finally solidified his conviction to record his first record in 2010. “I grew up in California and now I live in Brooklyn,” explains Porter, “but even so, I feel that the spirit of the artists that came out of Harlem – from Duke Ellington to Langston Hughes – has so influenced my work that Harlem is as much a part of me as if I had lived there.”
The soulful spirit of the ‘70s, epitomized by such artists as Lou Rawls and the Chi Lights, echoes forth in style on Porter’s “Real Good Hands,” a track that makes it clear that Porter is a complete romantic at heart. On the intriguing ballad, “The Way You Want to Live,” a song of dangerous personal choices that he dedicated to Amy Winehouse during a performance at the Blue Note in New York just days after her untimely death, Chip Crawford’s poignant touch on the keyboards is matched by Porter’s fervent delivery. Next up, the band’s unassuming, solid rapport underscores the tenderness of Porter’s lyrics on “When Did You Learn?”
“Imitation of Life,” the first of the three tracks on Be Good not written by Porter, is the title track from an Oscar-nominated 1959 film starring Lana Turner and Sandra Dee. Written by Paul Francis Webster and Sammy Fain, who also penned the Academy Award-winning “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing,” and the Johnny Mathis hit, “A Certain Smile, “Imitation of Life” was originally performed by Earl Grant and has seldom since been recorded.
Porter, the youngest of a family of 6 raised in Bakersfield California by a single mother who was also a minister, offers a show stopping and inspiringly heartfelt tribute to this clearly exceptionally woman in “Mother’s Song,” emphasizing the extraordinary impact her love and fortitude has upon his life and work. “Our Love” which takes as its theme romantic love that succeeds despite the odds and in spite of naysayers, sustains the CD’s mellow mood until Porter shakes things up completely with the scat-inflected, high energy “Bling Bling.” Next, Porter delivers perhaps one of the hottest and grittiest versions ever on record of Nat Adderly’s classic, “Work Song,” a hard driving blues and jazz standard that has been recorded by vocalists as disparate as Nina Simone, Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Johnny Rivers. Porter closes the proceedings with an a cappella version of “God Bless the Child,” that is as understated as a prayer and as comforting as a lullaby.
In review after review, critics are inspired to comment on Porter as a new “king’ of jazz,” and a “leader of the pack,” a performer of extraordinary presence who has been compared with the greatest of the greats, such as Joe Williams, Nat Cole, Donny Hathaway, and Marvin Gaye. As musically solid as his recordings are and as powerful and honest as Porter’s magnificent voice is, it may just well be the brilliance of his poetry and the unguarded depth of his emotional delivery that is most fueling his rapid rise to fame. While fans will certainly be tempted to interpret deeply autobiographical messages amid the stories of love and loss that Porter has composed for Be Good, Porter is quick to point out that he is more painter than photographer. “My songs may start from a place of personal experience,” he explains, but he uses his poetic license freely. “I try not to impose any particular perspective on the music. I want listeners to be affected each in his or her own way, and moved as much by what can be read in between the lines as what the lyrics say.”
Porter’s ascending star is viewed most brightly in Europe, especially in the UK, where he has performed on Jamie Cullum’s BBC radio program, on Later with Jools Holland, as a featured guest at the London Jazz Festival and as one of two special guests on Carole King’s 2011 BBC holiday television special. UK’s Jazz Wise magazine named Water the #1 Jazz Album of 2011 (the first time a vocal album has achieved this distinction.) and BE GOOD made the top five list for Album of the Year in 2012. Across the channel in France, press and radio have showered Porter with incredible accolades, lauding him as the new “Roi of Jazz,” and featuring him on the front cover of the mainstream magazine, L’Express, as ”the next great voice in Jazz.”
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Be Good by Gregory Porter