It’s tough to achieve stardom as a singer, harder still as a jazz singer, and especially as a male jazz singer. Which makes the rapid rise of Gregory Porter all the more remarkable. Having garnered a Grammy nomination for ‘Best Jazz Vocal’ his first time out with his 2010 debut Water on the strength of a powerful new civil rights anthem “1960 What?”, Porter seemed destined for even greater things. For those watching his ascendency (especially in Europe, where he’s an even bigger star), the crucial follow-up comes next month. Be Good stays true to the formula established on Water, with mostly Porter originals produced by Kamau Kenyatta (Lizz Wright, Richie Havens, Randy Weston, Patricia Barber) and backed by a crisp unit consisting of pianist Chip Crawford, bassist Aaron James, drummer Emanuel Harrold and Yosuke Sato providing alto sax here and there.
The thing, I think, that sets Porter apart from innumerable other jazz crooners is that he’s not the traditional torch singer, presenting tired old interpretations of sung-to-death Tin Pan Ally songs and show tunes. Never one to over-emote, he can nevertheless convey all levels of passion with convincing sincerity. Porter writes most of his material and draws comparisons to Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers, Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield and melodically, at least, even Wayne Shorter. On many of his songs, he’s really a soul singer with an acoustic jazz combo backing; a legitimate heir to Lou Rawls.
On Be Good, his solid songwriting continues on its roll, and there are some moments where it approaches Hathaway level quality. One of those is the charming love song “When Did You Learn?” Beginning with a short, cascading note figure as a salutation, Porter builds a quiet groove in the verse paced by soft rim shots, contrasted by a major chord chorus over an eruptive drum pattern. The beginning theme appears unexpectedly between the second verse and chorus, a maneuver you might not expect from someone whose career is just getting traction. The song is lyrically strong, too, containing evergreen verses seemingly to have come from the pen of Burt Bacharach’s sonnetist Hal David, with naturally flowing lines like “When did you learn/the rules of love’s game/they came and they saw you/calling and singing out my name/When did you learn?” At least, they flow out just right when Porter sings ‘em.
Look for the Motéma Music release Be Good at retail outlets beginning February 14.