in performance: gregory porter

gregory porter.

gregory porter.

“I was baptized to the sound of horns,” sang Gregory Porter by way of introduction last night at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. While that was perhaps not the most telling verse to the nature of the Grammy winning artist’s talents (Porter is a vocalist and songwriter, not a horn player), it did reference the level of jazz culture the performance was steeped in.

In fact, the song that line was pulled from, On My Way to Harlem, was a reflection of the formative musicians (Duke Ellington) and writers (Langston Hughes) that obviously resonated with Porter and the community that helped cultivate them (“Marvin Gaye, he used to play What’s Going On right over there”).

On record, Porter stresses songs as well as style by addressing romance, family and spirituality with just enough of a traditional soul pedigree to recall the great Bill Withers. In performance, though, jazz takes over. Last night, Porter’s phrasing shifted from glorious lyrical understatement to gospel-level vigor to blasts of clear, unwavering baritone. With the help of a resourceful back up quartet, every style was spoken with a commanding jazz accent.

No Dying Love, Wolfcry and Hey Laura, three of the seven songs performed from the 2013 Grammy winning Liquid Spirit album, illustrated the cool side of Porter’s performance persona. No Dying Love sported expert ensemble color, the powerful but exquisitely controlled love affirmation Wolfcry was performed as an elegant duet with pianist Chip Crawford and the especially Withers-esque Hey Laura balanced the sleekness of Porter’s singing with flute support from Yosuke Sato.

The title tune to Liquid Spirit, however, was all revivalist release punctuated by a gospel groove and a piano breakdown from Crawford that was as volcanic as Porter’s singing was sweet.

Porter and band saved perhaps their most complete performance for last – specifically, an encore of Be Good (Lion’s Song) buoyed by a bass solo from Aaron James that seemed to sing with its own independent melody, warm and conversational rhythms from drummer Emanuel Harrold and a vocal turn from Porter full of poise, authority and effortless soul.

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