A Male Jazz Singer, A Mindful Man of Elements: Gregory Porter and his album Water

By Daniel Garrett

Gregory Porter, Water
Produced by Kamau Kenyatta
Motema Music, 2010

It is easy to lose faith in words when you realize that frequently they are used to do everything but tell the truth.  The singer Gregory Porter is trying to say something true.  Gregory Porter is an unexpected but welcomed presence, his voice low and manly, sometimes remarkably forceful, and his themes romantic, spiritual, and political.  The male jazz singer now is a rare thing; and a mature and sophisticated man may be even less common.  On Gregory Porter’s album Water, Porter actually does take the listener on a journey, one with discovery and knowledge, joy and pain.  It offers the pleasure of sounding like a live performance.  Porter has a piano for company in “Illusion,” and is joined by a wailing saxophone and murmuring trombone in “Pretty.”  Porter sometimes reminds me of singer Sammy Davis Jr., whose enunciation and timbre were perfect as a young man (he later became both more energetic and mannered), though Porter has named men such as Nat King Cole, Joe Williams, Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway as musicians with whom he finds identification.

“I’ve been trying to find my footing on the slopes of the illusion that I lost it when you left me,” sings Gregory Porter in “Illusion,” one of his six original compositions on Water (seven if one counts the song he co-wrote, “Wisdom”); “Illusion,” a song of both despair and recovery, in which the attempts to dominant a disconcerting experience—through remembering and thinking, through housework and planting flowers—yield language that is sometimes articulate and sometimes imprecise.  It is not clear whether “Pretty,” which refers to a drum-playing brown-eyed girl, is about one young woman or two, or about a symbol of beauty, music, and life that takes the form of a girl.  That elusive quality is, of course, partly what poetry and music are always founded upon: the possibility of meaning is between the lines; and yet that can be frustrating.

“Magic Cup” could be a tribute to well-made, delicious coffee—or to a lover; a relationship that is desired, enjoyed, and possibly addictive.  The lyrics are romantic—“All day long I can’t do without you, grinding beans and steaming cream” and “You give me youth and taste of truth, cause you’re my magic cup”—but the instrumental music of the composition “Magic Cup” articulates the anxiety as well as excitement in a relationship—and the tension between the two states—and that is a rejection of the merely charming or simple, the kind of rejection that has been lauded; but as I listen to the shrieking of some of the instruments—with Chip Crawford on piano and Aaron James playing bass, Emanuel Harold drums, Melvin Vines trumpet, Curtis Taylor trumpet, Yoske Sato on alto sax, and Robert Stringer trombone—it is impossible for me not to wonder if in rejecting an old stereotype, a new stereotype may have been created: is chaos or confusion really, consistently, at the center of experience?

Gregory Porter’s album Water does not do only one thing; consequently, Porter cannot be made into a negative example.  In Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer’s “Skylark,” romantic expression is balanced by dignity and restraint; and although the song—inescapably—has much of its customary wistfulness, it seems more rooted, tempered by the real, and the repeated question at the end is one of both doubt and hope.  The fast horns, percussion, and singing voice of “Black Nile,” a composition by Wayne Shorter, gives way to scatting.  However, Gregory Porter’s voice is not always as fine as I would like: not as pretty; and when he increases its volume, as in “Wisdom,” a song of both history and spirituality by Porter and Daniel Jackson, Porter as singer courts something less pleasant.  (It can be like spending time with a man who is intelligent and interesting but has a rough quality.)  Yet, in “Wisdom” the piano’s notes seem to tumble out and over each other, still an effect I find winning.

“It’s an album of love and protest,” the Bakersfield-bred and Brooklyn-living Gregory Porter told writer Siddhartha Mitter, who composed Water’s jacket notes and called Porter’s composition “1960 What?” a “righteous epic” and also asserted that “Porter’s music still brims with this keenness to the lyricism of small things.”  It is an ambitious album, an ambition that may be similar to that of John Legend and the Roots’ Wake Up!, a work of social conscience, though Water is not a single concept album and has varied themes.  Gregory Porter is more committed to wholeness, to expressing different aspects of his being.  However, in the album’s longest composition, “1960 What?,” Gregory Porter as narrator, sounding like Amiri Baraka, declares that “the motor city is burning y’all—that ain’t right” and refers to Martin Luther King Jr.’s death and describes trigger-happy policing (supported by a trumpet that blares, jabs, rumbles, and yearns); and the song portrays how certain events turn people against the possibilities of life and light.  A vision that only recognizes strength and cruelty and rage is dangerously imperfect: rather, creativity, education, intelligence, sensitivity, democratic political participation, and compassionate social work are goals and virtues that can affirmed, if not actively pursued, in all timesThe political and psychological urge to rebel may both narrow a man’s intellectual and spiritual vision and lead to the social change he requires.  It is important to note that the 1960s form a genuine period of history and also a myth; and the old rhetoric may charge the spirit but has limited practical value in an age of relative racial integration and appreciation for many cultures as well as economic globalism.

A song about the many sides of love (“it’s a problem or it’s play), a song of realism and faith, “But Beautiful,” written by Burke and Van Heusen, is here on Water a quiet reverie featuring voice and piano.  The scars of a bad break-up are considered with sympathy in “Lonely One,” by someone who has suffered and understands: “the lonely one is here.”  The song has the melody and firm structure of an American standard; and the saxophone in it is easy to like.  “Water” is a ballad citing the presence of that fundamental element in different areas of human, natural, and city life.  Gregory Porter’s album Water concludes with a song Nina Simone used to sing, the grain of her voice and earthy, knowing intonation making it an intimate victory, Bricusse and Newley’s “Feeling Good,” focused on a sense of renewal (“it’s a new life for me, and I’m feeling good”), in a solo voice performance.  I have listened to Porter’s “Feeling Good” over and over again.  Gregory Porter is in the house, and prepared to walk the land.

Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana and a longtime resident of New York, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader.  Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.  Daniel admires classic and modern literature and philosophy, and likes painting and sculpture, French film, Afghan and Indian food, jazz, rock, and world music; and he has said, “Being an artist is not a pursuit of success or an acceptance of failure; rather, it is an openness to life and its deepest possibilities, an openness to imagination, intellect, and spirit, and a correspondent commitment to craft experience and objects influenced by that openness.”  Daniel Garrett returned to the American south, where he worked on a novel, A Stranger on Earth, begun in New York.

Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail or D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com