Gregory Porter is an American jazz vocalist, songwriter and actor from Sacramento, California. In 2014, he won a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album for his third, 2013, effort, Liquid Spirit. Porter’s fourth album, Take Me To The Alley, is released on Friday, May 6.
Porter moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York, in 2004, along with his brother Lloyd. He worked as a chef at Lloyd’s restaurant, where he also performed. He played at other neighbourhood venues, including Sista’s Place and Solomon’s Porch, and moved on to Harlem club, St. Nick’s Pub, where he maintained a weekly residency. Out of this residency evolved what would become Porter’s touring band.
“Holding On”, opens proceedings. The song starts with ringing piano chords and double bass. The vocals are soulful, and daresay bluesy, and from the gut. The track seems to recall hard times, and eventually getting to one’s destination. The drums and double bass get a bit busy on this track. A highlight, though, is the saxophone solo; sad, longing and really taking the centre stage.
“Don’t Lose Your Steam”, follows. This kicks in with truly bluesy vocals, briefly acapella. Then comes in piano that really hammers a jumping and bouncing rhythm, before the tempo changes slightly with a saxophone that gets ridiculously jazzy, almost virtuoso-esque in its expert delivery.
Title track, “Take Me To The Alley”, comes next. The title track is a bit more laidback than the latter, a tad more melancholy. Piano underpins this one, with rimshots from the drummer. He’s assisted with some female vocals, filling out the sound wonderfully.
The drums break out slightly, almost with military precision on the snare. This appears to depict street life, all the sadness of the down and outs in the world on one track. There appears to be a trumpet solo, not as fancy as the saxophone in the previous song, but, although occasionally fiddly, probably with a lot more heart.
The fourth is “Day Dream”. Piano rings out in this one, evocative of the journey of life, neither predominantly happy nor sad. The drums are syncopated, creating tight and fighting fit rhythms. The saxophone on this one is joyful, and is intricate as two tracks ago, but is more expressive than showing off. The vocals propel the whole musical basis of this song, conveying the search for a better day.
“Consequence Of Love” has a moody groove to it, before the vocals take it in another direction completely. It’s arguably a more straight ahead track than those preceding it. Again, the saxophone takes centre stage, the descending piano complementing it well. The piano drives the song, as the basis of the track’s melody hooks upon it. The ending takes it in another direction, a minor one as the last word sung is ‘love’. Positive amid the negative, and vice versa?
Then there’s “In Fashion”. The drums kick off this one, then the piano stabs out a basic melody. The vocals drive this song forward, conveying forward motion, and then the pre chorus assumes this role afterwards. At one point he just riffs the sound of the instrumental aspect with his voice, rather than actual words. There are some fine double bass licks under this instrumental carpet. A piano solo is simple yet satisfying. It appears to address the nonsensical world of fashion, and how distracting this relatively inane aspect of everyday life really is.
The halfway point comes with “More Than A Woman”, and sees the double bass take somewhat of a centre stage, sliding, longing and sad. The vocal melody very much follows the predominant melody, rather than singing across it. The middle section, lead by a wandering piano, sees a beautiful saxophone come to life. “She makes my blind eyes see, more than a woman to me” is a powerfully honest line, indicative of the whole song itself.
“In Heaven” is a lively one, with busy piano and rimshots combined with other drumming aspects. Curious, perhaps, as rimshots usually appear in isolation from other parts of the drum kit. Anyway, the trumpet is arguably the driving emotional force in the song, bar maybe the vocal melodies and words themselves. Aspects of it are like the easy going delivery of a song by, say, Frank Sinatra.
“Insanity” follows. Saxophone opens this one, with the drums, though sparse, is swinging in the background. This gives the song a wandering aspect. British singer songwriter, Daley, appears to have a track similar to this, particularly the mutual “love is a losing game” line, and its delivery. Saxophone also appears in the middle section, as vital as at the start. Some lovely double bass playing towards the end.
“Don’t Be A Fool”, is more rooted in gospel, particularly that opening salvo of the organ. Those sparse, yet swinging drums reappear. The piano, ever mournful, is key to the song, assisting and helping punctuate the vocals. There appears to be vocal assistance, like many songs ago, and, again, it fills out the song nicely. The saxophone is sexy, but tasteful. “The gravity of tears in our eyes” is resplendent with imagery, a very clever lyric, and is like the inevitability of falling down.
“Fan The Flames”, jumps out as easily one of the busiest tracks on the album. Up tempo jazz is the best way to describe it. Vocal riffing of the instrumental aspect makes another appearance; maybe necessitated by the speed of track, as meaningful words are perhaps hard to squeeze in. The saxophone rediscovers its dextrous and showy voice. There appears to be a trumpet doing a very similar job, just on a different frequency. The piano gets busy, too, tinkling away like no tomorrow.
Concluding the album is “French African Queen”, which’s a highlight, especially for those fans of the double bass. Horns herald the key melody of the track. The vocals are full on and, at their core, bluesy. Wild saxophone dances all over this track with almost stamping authority. The song appears to be about the coming together of different cultures, but with one common denominator, that all are black in their origins. The song ends abruptly, but not without satisfying the listener in its duration.
The album is overall quite strong, generally, with “Don’t Be A Fool” a song with its own identity within the album. Although there’s plenty of soul and blues, it stands out as, strictly, the only song on the album evocative of wonderful gospel. In some respects “Fan The Flames” has a similar standing.
Most songs on this album are slow to mid tempo, and a lot of jazz’s best when played at a frenetic pace. The aforementioned has that in spades. Then there’s closer, “French African Queen”. There’s some tasteful double bass playing throughout the album, yet it’s not until this last track that its full clarity is unveiled.
Gregory Porter, with Take Me To The Alley, has put together a very consistent work that still, however, manages to explore a few genres. Jazzy ambience combines, usually, with soulful, and daresay sometimes poppy, melodies. Jazz, soul and blues are all African in their roots but, on this album, still crossover towards fans of usually completely different genres.
Words by Andrew Watson