The Elegance of Empathy and Ethics: Be Good by Gregory Porter

By Daniel Garrett

Gregory Porter, Be Good
Produced by Brian Bacchus
Associate Producer Kamau Kenyatta
Motema, 2012

Gregory Porter’s singing is warm and tender.  People as paintings, as object and subject, is the concept of the inviting, mid-tempo jazz composition “Painted on Canvas,” the melodious, mellow song that mentions Motley and Bearden, two African-American painters, a piece with good piano and drumming—structured, intricate, pleasing—by singer-songwriter Gregory Porter, featuring his soothing singing.  Porter’s voice is low and intimate in “Be Good (Lion’s Song),” which compares a man to an attractive but dangerous lion.  The song, which has expressive saxophone playing, is somewhat melancholy, but Porter’s voice reaches out broadly, firmly, loudly, achieving a romantic aura.  “I was baptized by my daddy’s horn,” sings Gregory Porter in “On My Way to Harlem,” a composition of cultural tribute with a quick tempo—it mentions Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, and Marvin Gaye, people once found in Harlem—and the song, not angry or mournful, but rather factual and enthusiastic, features saxophone and light drumming and the verve of Porter’s singing, which allows space between the verses for the full presence of other instruments.

Gregory Porter trusts basic human character—emotion and intelligence; and shared concerns and virtues—so he easily engages the listener.  Porter creates a genuine space of empathy and understanding.  He relaxes into a mood, and one feels the emotion in the song.  A man talks to his girlfriend’s parents about becoming part of the family in the masculine, mellow soul ballad “Real Good Hands”: “Mama, don’t you worry about your daughter, ’cause she’s in real good hands,” he assures the mother, and then the father.  Gregory Porter’s voice is strong but the sound is comfortable, comforting, its force controlled, not pushy or intimidating, in “The Way You Want to Live,” in which he declares, “I need someone just to be there, to be square.”  A man asks a woman—who says, “Let’s just do what we do”—about her good instincts for love in “When Did You Learn,” while “Imitation of Life” is a searching ballad about a false life, about lovelessness.

On most of the songs on Be Good, Gregory Porter is joined by pianist Chip Crawford, bassist Aaron James, drummer Emanuel Harrold, Kamau Kenyatta on soprano saxophone, Keyon Harrold on trumpet, Yosuke Sato on alto saxophone, and Tivon Pennicott on tenor saxophone.  In the mid-tempo, rousing “Mother’s Song,” praise of a mother’s love and lessons, the saxophone is a strong presence, and the percussion sure.  The world’s ability to do damage, the sabotage and subterfuge love must face, is the subject of “Our Love,” which has the gospel touch of a bluesy piano.  “I’m so rich in love, and so poor in everything that makes love matter,” declares Porter in the comic, intense “Bling, Bling,” a frantic, scatting piece, in which Porter also sings, “I’ve got gifts to give but no place for those gifts to live.”  Less folk song than jazzily theatrical recitation, Porter transforms “Work Song,” which Nina Simone used to sing, a song about a poor, hungry person imprisoned for stealing from a grocery store and sentenced to five years of hard labor.  “I’ve been working but still got so terribly long to go,” he laments.  In a lone voice, without instrumental support, Gregory Porter delivers a well-shaped “God Bless the Child,” Billie Holiday’s song about the necessity of personal independence.  Be Good exemplifies its own name.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, 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, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  “The frustration and failure of one person’s ambitions does not justify the complacent mediocrity of others.  Ambition alone can be inspiring; the accomplishment of it even more, if one has the will for freedom or creativity,” says Daniel Garrett, who has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.