Gregory Porter - Nat King Cole and Me (advance review)

Gregory Porter
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Gregory Porter - Nat King Cole and Me

Like most enduring relationships – musical or otherwise - the one between Nat King Cole and Gregory Porter has an origin story. That story begins in the Bicentennial year of 1976 – five years after Porter’s birth and 11 years after Cole’s death. That year, the Sacramento born and Bakersfield raised Porter let his mother, Ruth, hear a song that he had written that prompted her to tell the boys that he sounded like Nat King Cole.

Ok, mothers like to encourage their children, and this kinda sorta sounds like something a parent would say to a precocious kindergartener who likely had a voice that only a mother could love. Hindsight tells us that Ruth Porter heard something in her son’s voice that foreshadowed his growth into the international star and multiple Grammy award winning artist who enchants listeners with his baritone.

Gregory Porter - Nat King Cole and Me

Like most enduring relationships – musical or otherwise - the one between Nat King Cole and Gregory Porter has an origin story. That story begins in the Bicentennial year of 1976 – five years after Porter’s birth and 11 years after Cole’s death. That year, the Sacramento born and Bakersfield raised Porter let his mother, Ruth, hear a song that he had written that prompted her to tell the boys that he sounded like Nat King Cole.

Ok, mothers like to encourage their children, and this kinda sorta sounds like something a parent would say to a precocious kindergartener who likely had a voice that only a mother could love. Hindsight tells us that Ruth Porter heard something in her son’s voice that foreshadowed his growth into the international star and multiple Grammy award winning artist who enchants listeners with his baritone.

Porter’s mother was a Pentecostal minister, and prophecy often comes with that territory. Ruth Porter’s encouraging words to five-year-old Gregory take on an added poignancy because she did not live to see him reach the heights of his profession. She never heard any of Porter’s five studio albums, the most recent of which is comprised of tunes Cole made famous and is titled Nat King Cole and Me.

The album’s title comes from an autobiographical play that Porter wrote explaining the importance that Cole and his music played in the singer/songwriter’s life. Porter began an exploration of Cole through his mother’s vinyl record collection and relied on those albums for the comfort, inspiration and wisdom that some boys receive from a dad, uncle or coach. Porter’s father, himself a talented vocalist, was a fleeting presence, so Gregory looked for father figures where he could find them. He found one in Cole.

Porter’s own biography makes the inclusion of “I Wonder Who My Daddy Is,” a song performed by Cole’s brother Freddy, the most impactful cut on Nat King Cole and Me. The song begins with Porter accompanied by a piano, and has a nursery rhyme feel. Porter has an ability to sing in character, and hearing him bring the vulnerability of a little boy trying to make sense of his father’s absence makes “I Wonder Who My Daddy Is” the album’s signature song.

A big part of the success of that song, and the album as a whole, comes from the instrumental arrangements, because Porter’s vocals remain on point throughout Nat King Cole and Me. Porter fans first heard him sing “But Beautiful” on his debut album Water. That arrangement found the baritone accompanied by piano. He’s backed by a full orchestra on the version heard on Nat King Cole and Me. However, use of space allows vocalist and musicians to engage in a give and take where all ebb and flow in concert.

Not every arrangement works. The accelerated tempo on “L-O-V-E” saps the tune of its swing, while Porter’s rangy and energetic baritone struggles to remain with the orchestra’s confines on the overly lush version of “When Love Was King,” the only Porter original on the disc. Mostly, singer and band sync up nicely. Both vocalist and big band swing on “Ballerina,” while the small set combo arrangement on “Sweet Lorraine” gives the tune a swing that is an homage to Cole’s days as leader of a trio. Porter takes listeners on a vocal trip with the range that he displays on “For All We Know.” He sings in higher register of his baritone on most of the track and that gives the cut a unique R&B feel as the his vocal moves in between the swelling violins. Then he reverts to his power packed baritone at the song’s crescendo.

If there is an artist alive who has the chops to carry the musical legacy of Nat King Cole, Gregory Porter is the one. And on Nat King Cole and Me Porter shows that whether the arrangement calls for swelling bombast or subtle swing he has what it takes to pull it off. This is a beautiful tribute that also stands as a musical success on its own. Recommended.

By Howard Dukes

 

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