Gregory Porter - Take Me To the Alley (review)

Gregory Porter
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The ability use his big voice and equally big physical presence to make sweeping philosophical and political points stands as one of the many gifts that Gregory Porter possesses. Porter took on the turbulence of the waning days of the Civil Rights Movement in “1960 What,” a track with lyrics that reveal the sadly consistent role that structural racism played and continues to play in urban unrest.  That tune found Porter drawing upon the fire and brimstone that came to him organically from growing up in the house of a preacher, to paint a three dimensional mental picture of those rage filled days.

Then there’s the anti-gentrification plea “On My Way to Harlem,” a track that found Porter immersing himself in the history of the cultural giants who strode through Harlem and then defiantly telling the speculators and hipsters that he wouldn’t allow the history of the community to be erased.

The ability use his big voice and equally big physical presence to make sweeping philosophical and political points stands as one of the many gifts that Gregory Porter possesses. Porter took on the turbulence of the waning days of the Civil Rights Movement in “1960 What,” a track with lyrics that reveal the sadly consistent role that structural racism played and continues to play in urban unrest.  That tune found Porter drawing upon the fire and brimstone that came to him organically from growing up in the house of a preacher, to paint a three dimensional mental picture of those rage filled days.

Then there’s the anti-gentrification plea “On My Way to Harlem,” a track that found Porter immersing himself in the history of the cultural giants who strode through Harlem and then defiantly telling the speculators and hipsters that he wouldn’t allow the history of the community to be erased.

Like a preacher of social justice, Porter finds the nexus of the spiritual and the political on the memorable title track on his latest project, Take Me To the Alley, which is due out on May 6. “Take Me To the Alley” finds Porter operating in the upper register of his trademark baritone as he sets the scene of a city preparing for the arrival of a mighty man. “Well, they build their houses in preparation for the king/And the line the sidewalks with every sort of shiny thing.” However, this king will not judge the residents on how the preparations they make to receive one who is so might, but rather on society’s treatment of the least of those. “Take me to the alley/Take me to the afflicted ones/Take to the lonely one who somehow lost their way.” The tune is trademark Porter in that it draws upon the lessons from the sermons that Porter likely heard his mother and other preachers give that focus on Christ’s compassion for the poor. And just like those sermons can be seen as biting commentary on an economic, political and racial hierarchy that often had little or no compassion for the afflicted ones, this cut serves as a powerful reminder that the last should be first in the halls of power as  well as the church sanctuary.

Still, most of the buzz surrounding Take Me To the Alley involves of a track that gives Porter his too long in coming introduction to Urban Adult Contemporary radio – the duet with Kem on an R&B version of “Holding On.” That cut first came to life as techno number with Porter backed by the English electro duo Disclosure. That track is not included on Take Me To the Alley, and that’s too bad because hearing Porter sing the Disclosure version, the adult R&B version and a stripped down version with Porter backed mainly by piano and bass is to again realize that Porter is a vocalist who can adapt to any style. And while the Porter-Kem version will be a part of summer soundtrack for radio listeners, that jazz and understated version will likely be the one most pleasing to long time Porter fans.

Porter’s appeal stems from his gospel and soul man willingness to bring honesty and vulnerability to his lyrics – recall “Illusion” from Water. However, Take Me To the Alley stands as Porter’s most personal album. The project includes two songs about his young son, “Don’t Lose You Steam,” a rollicking and funky cut in which Porter encourages and challenges a young man to reach his destiny and cross the bridge built by his ancestors; while the infectious and vivid “Day Dream” finds Porter finding wonder in a child’s imagination.

The album also includes, “In Heaven,” a calypso styled track which finds Porter speaking in the voice of his departed mother, who implores him to find comfort in the fact that she is at peace. “In Heaven, that’s where you’ll find me/My love/Not on earth with its heartache and pain.

A balladeer without peer in contemporary music, Porter mines emotion ranging from regret to helplessness to adoration from a quintet of cuts sprinkled throughout Take Me To the Alley. Each listener will find their his or her favorites, but the standouts for me are the two that find the big former linebacker working vocally through the powerlessness and loss of control that comes with expressions of regret and rejection. On “In Fashion,” Porter compares himself to last year’s styles when he realizes that his lady has decided to embrace a new look, while “Don’t Be A Fool” is a soulful track that shows Porter can beg with the best of them.

The four albums that Porter has released as a solo artist show him to be a songwriter who is conscious, lyrical and efficient. The stories that he tells are always compelling and the images that he conjures with those words are consistently vivid. Porter and his long-time producer Kamau Kenyatta are selfless and confident artists willing to stand aside and provide space for their excellent band that features pianist Chip Crawford, drummer Emanuel Harrold, alto player Yosuke Sato, and tenor player Tivon Pennicott.

Porter fans will have the same question at the end of Take Me To the Alley that were asked at the completion of Water, Be Good and Liquid Spirit. Will this project be the one that brings Porter the recognition that is on par with his talent? He moves closer with each release and whether that process reaches its just conclusion has more to do with the vagaries of the music business than Porter’s talent or the quality of his work, which once again are without question or peer. Highly Recommended.

By Howard Dukes

 

 
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