Gregory Porter – An Impressive and Important New Voice in Jazz


Gregory Porter [photo courtesy of the San Diego Symphony]

Saturday night, May 7th, brought us the Gregory Porter Quartet under the aegis of [email protected], curated by San Diego’s own Gilbert Castellanos. If Dickens had been a jazz critic, he might have entitled his review, “It was the best of concerts, it was the worst of concerts.”

Porter possesses an alluring baritone as well as a clear, unique songwriting talent. Featuring his regular band – Tivon Pennicott, tenor sax; Chip Crawford, piano; Jahmal Nichols, bass, and Emanuel Harrold, drums – the musicians traversed an original program of ten tunes, all taken from Porter’s three attractive and commercially available recordings.

This was my first, extended experience listening to Porter and his band. Readily apparent is a deeply Black Weltschmertz hugely indebted to, of all people, Gil Scott-Heron. His vocal stylings obviously also owe a great deal to the pantheon of great jazz/pop singers including Jon Lucien, Lou Rawls, Joe Williams, Teddy Pendergast and the Marvin Gaye of “What’s Going On.” He brings an earthy yet sophisticated attitude to his socially driven city stylings.

His deep sensitivity to the social ills of our day is expressed within an atmosphere of hope, in spite of the dark seriousness of the songs’ subject matter. Whether the problems he sings about are poverty, loneliness, substance abuse, racial prejudice or social alienation, the hidden message in all of his lyrics is always one that expresses the belief that a way forward is open to us. Porter, formerly a Division I, full scholarship football player at San Diego State University, suffered a career ending shoulder injury. His academic scholarship evaporated with his injury, too. So, his positive take on life’s handing him lemons was to make lemonade – in the guise of some quite remarkable and lovely music that packs a punch. There is nothing fey or passive about his message nor its delivery.

The band held a great deal of promise at the beginning of the concert, but some rather inexcusable failings reared their ugly heads. On the positive side was the magnificent tenor sax playing of Tivon Pennicott, a young Brooklyn-based player deeply set in The Tradition. Don Braden, Mark Turner, Donny McCaslin and David Sanchez were some readily apparent models. It was great to hear a tenor player using ‘nary a Brecker riff all night long, playing with accurate intonation and a deep pocket.

Pianist Chip Crawford seems to be a particularly close collaborator with Porter. He supported the vocalist, and he led the band without physical gesture. Unique chord voicings swirled, and his impressive time feel did much to keep everyone on track – thank goodness, because he did not get much rhythmic help from the bassist, drummer, the sound engineer or the hall. Fast passage work in Crawford’s solos, however, was painfully sloppy and uneven.

I could not discern if the bigger culprits to the band’s lack of groove were the abysmal acoustics of the theater or the rather horrid playing of drummer Emanuel Harrold. The young drummer seemed very impressed with his own technical skills, all the while forgetting to lay down anything even reminiscent of a groove. His percussion equipment was badly chosen for the room as well as for Porter and the band’s timbral esthetic. It is rare to encounter a drummer entrusted with so much responsibility fail so completely.

I must withhold judgment on the playing of bassist Jahmal Nichols. Although sporting both upright and electric bass, Nichols only played acoustic. His sound blended poorly with the piano and drums. One can rationally presume this primarily to be the fault of either the sound crew or the hall’s acoustics. Future hearings will resolve this question.

There was an opening mini pre-set led by trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos, accompanied by pianist Joshua White and bassist Marshall Hawkins. Castellanos’ playing was, as always, just splendid. Clearly delineated lines, accurately thrown down. Pianist White never fails to disappoint. If the man could learn to play a simple melody, the world would be a better place. Veteran Hawkins laid down a steady groove faultlessly. The repertoire for the set was bizarre, since the musicians picked tunes by Monk, Jobim and a gut-bucket blues played with plunger mute. Pretty ho-hum and more than a little on the pretentious side. I was expecting a broader, more profound statement from the trio, but was disappointed.

Yochanan Sebastian Winston

Yochanan Sebastian Winston, Ph.D. has performed throughout the United States, Europe and Latin America. His repertoire spans classical, jazz, klezmer, new age, contemporary, rock & roll and pop and is very active as a composer. Dr. Winston holds a Ph.D. from the UCSD, a Diplôme from the Conservatoire National de Region de Boulogne-Billancourt (France), and a Master’s and Bachelor’s of Music from the Manhattan School of Music in New York City.

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