Gregory Porter, "Take Me To The Alley" Album Review
-One thing that cannot be denied in the slightest is Gregory's godsend of a voice--MAN.
The cure for the broken soul, his voice is.
Before listening to Take Me to the Alley, I had never heard of Gregory Porter, who won Best Jazz Album two years ago for his third studio album, Liquid Spirit. Aside from the greats (the usual suspects whose names don't even take an avid music fan to list), vocal jazz albums have always been under the public radar as well as mine. For me it's mostly due to its easy-listening nature and how much it's often ironically constrained within a specific songwriting structure, despite that it's jazz. Because many jazz vocalists don't play their own instruments in performance (nor do they write their own songs, often resorting to playing new renditions of the standards), vocal jazz music is always an easily pleasant experience that mostly leads to few places, as it is rather difficult to butcher a jazz arrangement when you have masterful instrumentalists and the kind of elegant ambience surrounding a jazz performance, but it's also not easy to achieve higher grounds.
The California native embodies a lot of the traditional characteristics and aesthetics of a conventional jazz vocalist in his appearance: a sports-jacket-wearing, straight-laced, dashing, sturdy gentleman with a few extra pounds on--just looks like a great guy if you ask me. His voice, however, makes his appearance even more genuinely likable. A voice so incredibly full and sincere, it kinda sounds like an age-old cello that's been recently reworked and polished. It's delicate, steady, trustworthy and mature. Sometimes a voice of such depth actually makes it hard for the musician to manipulate the final musical product, especially challenging when the musician tries to expand the horizon of his/her song, because the voice itself is susceptible to be perceived as so specifically characteristic that it becomes one-dimensional. Porter doesn't have the cheerfully versatile voice like Nat King Cole, nor does he exhibit the same kind of raspy uniqueness like Louis Armstrong. Nonetheless, Porter embraces the challenges he might've faced gracefully, and Take Me to the Alley is a sweet, easy-going, lighthearted and accessible record with the occasional display of volatility, ambition and respect for Gospel, Blues and Country. The album is sonically consistent, although periodically shining at special standout moments.
It's a little hard to imagine why the singer chose to open the album with "Holding On" and "Don't Lose Your Steam", 2 songs whose sounds seem as if separate from the rest of the album. "Holding On" is a spiritual and rather shy tune with an underlying piano chord progression and a slightly cheesy hook, dedicated to the struggles he's had to endure all his life, and "Don't Lose Your Steam" is a gospel cautionary tale that features soulful horns and sax, the most boisterous point of the album. Title track "Take Me to the Alley" is where the record settles down and introduces a high level of spiritual connection the singer has with his music. As Porter delivers with his signature bass voice, the mellow melody dances in a low register and features a harmonizing female voice that performs a romantic call-and-response toward the end. Next track "Day Dream" picks up the pace, telling a story of a young boy picturing a perfect future life in a fantasy world, as the singer paints the picture in a matter-of-fact fashion, in neither a praising nor a judgmental way, rather contemplating the kind of nostalgia for childhood that still haunt most of us where vivid imagination resides.
Over the span of the next few songs, Porter fluctuates back and forth between upbeat, joyful pieces and slow, subdued performances. The first love ballad of the album comes at the fifth track. A dude with a grown, deeply tender voice has got to be good at singing love songs, we ought to think, and yes we are all correct. "I will go to the consequence of love... whatever comes will make you see the game for me is you," a man sings to his lover and confesses his love promisingly. It's not flamboyant, and it's not expressive, but it is frank and sincere. The most memorable love songs ever are usually the ones that exude pain and sorrow but not the ones that are simply stern and faithful, but a song like "Consequence of Love" does the trick with its candidness. "In Fashion" is a fun and upbeat turnaround in a cool R&B vibe accompanied by carefree snares and a crisp piano solo. "More Than a Woman" sees Porter making a quick return to his signature easy-breezy jazz with a cool and catchy verse and transitioning to a thoughtful and heartfelt hook: "She never walked on water; she never turned that water to wine. But being 'round her made my blind eyes see... she's more than a woman to me," all the while accompanied by silky smooth saxophone as his soulful companion. "In Heaven" presents a cheery and spiritual moment when the singer sings about escaping the earth and embracing the freedom of the mind, while "Insanity" is a melancholy track that brings us back from "heaven" and laments the uneasy reality of love, relationship, and human emotion.
The ending tracks see Porter at his most daring form. "Fan The Flames" is a swing joint where Porter unapologetically encourages the listeners AKA the party people to get on their feet, leading charismatic trumpets and loose piano, creating the most improvised moment of the album that almost brings us back to the golden era of jazz. Porter hits his high register for the first time in the album and his voice becomes incredibly mesmerizing and almost hypnotic--this is where we realize that Porter is in fact an extremely mature jazz musician with a wide creative horizon. "French African Queen" is a similar face-paced swing-influenced jazz joint where Porter gets busy with his vocals and maneuvers tirelessly among wild horns, untamed piano and bold lyricism. These last tracks are where Porter brings the party to life with unprecedented-in-the-album energy, and I personally would've loved to hear him open the album with the two final tracks, as his unique voice really brings a special vibe to dance-y jazz joints and would've begun the album with a bang. But to each their own.
Take Me to The Alley is a safe product by a solid artist, who's without a doubt talented yet appears timid during most of the album. Although his songwriting style is delightfully personal, it on a certain level lacks impulse and devotion. Guess any musician who made their mainstream start in the industry near the age of 40 isn't exactly looking to take risks. But this album quietly and assertively illustrates Porter's talent and ability to drive and control his own heart-warming vocal jazz in soothing, liquid form. Fans can for sure count on Gregory Porter's next studio album to include a couple of more risqué factors and unforgettable moments. One thing that cannot be denied in the slightest is Gregory's godsend of a voice--MAN.