Gregory Porter, ‘Liquid Spirit’ (Blue Note)
Gregory Porter is a like some medicine everyone needed but didn’t know it. On his third CD, “Liquid Spirit,” the gentle, soul-jazz preacher man serves up an array of inspiring originals — including a couple of stone hit songs — in his slightly-burnt, buttered-toast baritone, plus two evergreens and a seldom-heard ballad by Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, “Lonesome Lover.”
The Lincoln connection isn’t accidental. Porter’s curious blend of laid-back, soulful syncopation and sing-songy folk melodies rises right out of Abbey, though the way he hovers, softly lands, then nestles into a word (“heal” on “No Love Dying,” “near” on “Wolfcry) is all his own.
It’s not just that Porter has a warm and fuzzy voice — Lou Rawls and Bill Withers are musical cousins — he has a warm and fuzzy message. That would be love, of course, but also Love, and it’s this conflation of the romantic and the spiritual, the sacred and the profane, that lies at the root of his appeal. He also exudes a sweet vulnerability and humility that come from the blues but feel like more like an embrace than a complaint.
Even when Porter is admitting he screwed up (the painful “Water Under Bridges”) or accusing his girlfriend of cheating (the almost menacing “Hey Laura”) his voice says he wants to believe things could — and will — get better. That’s the literal message of the first song, ‘No Love Dying,” a clever play on supersititions, in which he refuses to believe a bird flying into the house means bad luck.
On the title track, Porter initiates another theme, the correspondence between nature and virtue, urging folks to tear down the dams so the “liquid spirit” can flow over the land (and ourselves). But the best song on the album is “Brown Grass,” another “I screwed up” song that turns around the old “grass is greener” chestnut. “When Love Was King,” written for his newborn son, paints a grand vision of paradise lost, a perfect setup for the Tony Bennett-like grandeur of the closer — the ultimate, lower-case love song ode to vulnerability, ‘I Fall in Love Too Easily.”
Producer Brian Bacchus presents Porter in a classic small-group jazz setting, with excellent solos by alto saxophonist Yosuke Sato and pianist Chip Crawford (especially the exquiste piano-vocal duet on “Water Under Bridges”), while maintaining a direct, soul-jazz approach that will entice, rather than intimidate, non-jazz folk. By contrast, a track that may puzzle jazz heads is “The In Crowd,” the inane lyrics of which it’s hard to believe a guy seemingly as sincere as Porter could possibly believe in.
Porter, who as a jazz singer-songwriter works in the rarified territory of Oscar Brown, Jr. and Kurt Elling, is a brilliant inventor of melody, though many of his songs could benefit from a bridge (a middle part) in another key. (Charmingly, he even refers to that deficiency in “Wind Song,” half-apologizing “If my song repeats, it’s because I’m stuck on you.”)
But hey, Porter’s his own man, and makes great hay with what he’s got. There’s every reason to believe he will just get better and better.