While the modern jazz scene is often dominated by the most finely educated musicians, Porter's path included a football scholarship to San Diego State University. When a shoulder injury extinguished his hopes for a career in athletics, the world of music serendipitously received this soulful baritone, and after appearances at the world's finest jazz havens, including the North Sea Jazz Festival and Jazz at Lincoln Center, the entire globe is quickly becoming aware of his rare vocal gift. On a seemingly perpetual tour since his 2012 album "Be Good," Porter came to St. Louis for a delightful four-night stay at Jazz at the Bistro.
The quartet included the same line-up that recorded the recent album and did plenty to impress the crowd on their own. For the 9:30 p.m. set on Sunday, they took the stage without their vocalist to open up with an instrumental piece and set the tone for the evening. While there were no weak members of the group, Yosuke Sato seemed to lead the crew on his alto sax, delivering masterful solos on almost every song. The introductory piece showed off his speed and deep arsenal of licks in a quick, bebop style. But as the show progressed, he continued to amaze the crowd with demonstrations of finesse and a masterfully light touch. Beyond his pure skill and capabilities, Sato had a strong connection to the music, which spread throughout the crowd during his groovy and melodic-styled solo during a slightly up-tempo performance of "On My Way to Harlem."
Also included in the cast were pianist Chip Crawford, bassist Aaron James and drummer Emanuel Harrold; each offered their own influence on the performance. Like Sato, Crawford was fairly active with solos and varied the style just as much, all accompanied by a bright, childlike facial expression. His solo during "1960 What?" brought an immediate uproar of applause as he reached inside the Bistro's piano with his left hand while jamming out a broken chord rhythm with his right. Harrold also took a couple solos to shine, working from a simple drum set-up, but was highlighted by his selection of cymbals, manicured with drilled holes and electrical tape and all played with a very deliberate touch. James' part on the bass was perhaps easy to overlook, but not at all insignificant. While he never soloed or had a lead part in any song, his bass lines gave each song a stable foundation that allowed the others to be more free. It was clear he loved plucking every note of his parts.
Wearing his iconic headwear and a smile that seemed wider than his face, Gregory Porter appeared to start singing before he even stepped up to the microphone. Towering above the crowds, he demonstrated a remarkable feel for using distance and direction to precisely create his desired tone and intensity, sometimes standing as far as four feet from the microphone as he did. Additionally, Porter wasn't afraid to dabble with a few methods and styles that might be considered taboo to many of his vocalist peers, including emphasizing and holding selected consonant sounds and cracking his voice momentarily. This all contributed to the inimitable performance the Porter served the crowd.
While the show favored songs from the newer album including performances of "God Bless the Child," "Imitation of Life," "The Way You Want to Live" and a finale of the title track "Be Good," in addition to "On My Way to Harlem," the most notable performance of the night was unarguably "1960 What?," from the album "Water." After having a little bit of extra fun during the introduction, the band started the main verse with a little less tempo than the original, but the energy built quickly. It included a call and return segment that had the entire audience singing back to him, a rarity in this listening room. As the song developed into a hard groove jam, crowd members along the walls and in the back began to stand and dance, while the rest rocked back and forth in their chairs, filling the room with a symphony of snaps, claps and foot stomps in what became venue-wide jam session.
The show concluded with a couple more soulful and smooth songs to calm the sizzling crowd, leaving the audience in a state of blissful elation as Porter and the quartet descended the stage. Never retreating to the green room, the band took the time for a final meet and greet before their stay at the Bistro was finished. While a return seems more than likely, everyone is sure to remember the first time Gregory Porter came to Jazz at the Bistro.
All photos by Wil Wander.