Gregory Porter - Be Good (2012)

Gregory Porter
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As a music fan, few things conjure up excitement like the release of a new recording by an artist who scored big with his or her previous project. This artist put out a CD you kept on repeat for months, maybe even a couple of years. You couldn’t go a day without playing that record, and the contents of that record played on an infinite loop in your mind when you were at work or watching the game on TV. That pretty much explained my reaction to Water, Gregory Porter’s Grammy nominated debut CD. Somebody would be droning on about something five minutes past the point in which anything they said was remotely interesting and my ear worm would default to Porter’s rich baritone singing “Lonely One.”

As a music fan, few things conjure up excitement like the release of a new recording by an artist who scored big with his or her previous project. This artist put out a CD you kept on repeat for months, maybe even a couple of years. You couldn’t go a day without playing that record, and the contents of that record played on an infinite loop in your mind when you were at work or watching the game on TV. That pretty much explained my reaction to Water, Gregory Porter’s Grammy nominated debut CD. Somebody would be droning on about something five minutes past the point in which anything they said was remotely interesting and my ear worm would default to Porter’s rich baritone singing “Lonely One.”

So, when Chris let me know that we had an advanced copy of Porter’s sophomore effort, I leapt at the opportunity to review it. This is where things can get dangerous. Music fans make a visceral, almost spiritual connection with songs and CD’s that they love, and there is a temptation to judge subsequent projects from that artist by the masterpiece taking up permanent residence on your iPod. You are predisposed to judge the new project more harshly. We think we know about what type of music the artist should be making. Essentially, we want more of what we got the last time, and any disappointment we feel results from the fact that the artist wanted something more, something different; the artist wanted to evolve.

So whether due to twisted expectations or simply a sophomore slump, an artist’s second release can often be a disappointing affair. It happens. But not in this case. If anything Be Good – Porter’s latest recording – is even better than the excellent Water, which earned the singer a Best Jazz Vocal Grammy nomination. Porter fuses jazz and soul better than anybody working these days, and the fusion is even more balanced on Be Good. I wouldn’t be surprised in Porter earned Grammy nods in the jazz and R&B categories in 2013. Listen to Porter’s lovely phrasing on his rendering of “Imitation of Life,” a ballad from the 1959 film by the same name. It’s classic jazz. Then the brother goes classic soul on “Real Good Hands,” a number that tells the story of a man making his intentions known to his girlfriend’s parents. Yes, in 2012, asking for the blessing of the parents of your intended sounds kind of corny. But some things are just right, and the plain-spoken words delivered with passion and eloquence will have a lot of men waxing nostalgic. Listening to “Real Good Hands” transported me back to a kitchen table in 1991.

Be Good doesn’t contain an overtly political song such as Water’s “1960 What?” However, Porter is a great lyricist who subtly addresses subjects such as how gentrification can erase the history of a community in “On My Way to Harlem” – a cut that’s part love song to his adopted community and part polemic. He sings about looking for luminaries such as Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes and how they moved away. Of course, both men are long dead. But perhaps, Porter is also lamenting the fact that a lot of the history is being erased as the neighborhood goes upscale. Porter rings defiant in the chorus as he belts out “You can’t keep me away from where I was born. I was baptized by my daddy’s horn.” The hook serves as a reminder that we are all minders of the legacy of the cultural center of black America. The cut is also the best example on Be Good of how R&B and jazz can coexist. Then there is the title track “Be Good (Lion’s Song), an absolutely beautiful waltz in which Porter proves that he is a master of metaphor. In this case, he uses the metaphor of the lion to show how a man tries to tame his wild nature for the woman he loves.

Gregory Porter himself is a compelling figure, in part because of his unique look -- an unusual cap always covers his head -- and in part because of a voice and style that beautifully updates and amalgamates several classic styles. His mother compared him to Nat King Cole after he wrote a song when he was five, and he has since fashioned a fascinating musical life story that appears to be coming to full blossom in 2012. Porter will be spending a lot of time recounting various aspects of that autobiography if Be Good receives anywhere near the amount of critical and commercial love that it deserves. We are only one month into 2012 and we may have already heard the album of the year. Very Highly Recommended.

By Howard Dukes

 
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