After two solid albums on Motema, both of which earned Grammy nominations, singer and songwriter Gregory Porter makes his Blue Note debut with Liquid Spirit. A singer whose quicksilver vocal style refuses to be caged by either jazz, gospel, or R&B, his warm, inviting baritone utilizes them all when he wishes to. Using the musicians who appeared with him on 2012's Be Good -- Yosuke Sato and Tivon Pennicott, saxophones; Chip Crawford, piano; Aaron James, bass, Emanuel Harrold, drums -- Porter wrote or co-wrote 11 of these 14 songs. There is a dynamite reading of Billy Page's hard-grooving "The In Crowd" that highlights Porter's rhythmic phrasing. Though it's a soul tune at heart, he swings hard. The cover of Max Roach's and Abbey Lincoln's "Lonesome Lover" evokes the soulful post-bop spirit of the original and offers a bracing portrait of the singer's command of his own upper range. Covers aside, the real strength of Liquid Spirit lies in Porter's songs: his lyrics and melodies are as rich as his voice. Opener "No Love Dying Here" walks a line between jazz and soul; its life-affirming words are underscored by the effortless conviction and authority in his vocal, while Sato's alto saxophone solo affirms the lyric. The fingerpopping, handclapping gospel groove in the title track is punched up by saxophones and Curtis Taylor's trumpet. The call-and-response between Porter and James' bass is tasty, and one can hear a trace of Donny Hathaway in the singer's commanding, heartfelt delivery. "Hey Laura" is characterized by Porter's relaxed but utterly sincere delivery, and packs a knock-out emotional punch in his protagonist's plea to the object of his affection. "Brown Grass" is a close second in the emotional punch department; it's a love song to be sure, but a sadder one. Porter articulates his protagonist's regrets simply and honestly, and therefore resonantly. For all of his innovative ability to effortlessly combine, shift, and shape various musical genres in his own image, Porter is militantly old school -- check "Musical Genocide," as he celebrates the music of the past with a popping piano, hard-grooving horns, funky Rhodes, and swelling B-3. On the tender ballad "Wolfcry," he is accompanied only by Crawford; it's so hip and melodically rich, it could easily have been sung by a young Nat Cole. The way he and his band move through blues, jazz, gospel, and R&B -- simultaneously -- on the declamatory testimonial "Free" is breathtaking. The intro to "Movin'," near set's end, suggests Bill Withers, but Porter quickly shifts it into higher gear with the horns punctuating the ends of his sung lines. While his first two recordings revealed a major new talent with their promise, Liquid Spirit is a giant step forward artistically, and for the listener, an exercise in musical inspiration.
© Thom Jurek /TiVo