It was apparent from his very first album, ‘Water,’ released six years ago that Gregory Porter possessed unique musical gifts, both as a singer and songwriter. Though the record gained him a Grammy nomination, it was his second offering, 2012’s sublime ‘Be Good,’ that marked out the cat in the hat from Bakersfield, California, as a truly special talent who had the potential to break out of the soul-jazz ghetto and reach a wider demographic with his expressive, gospel-honed baritone voice and heartfelt songs of love and life. It, too, gained a Grammy nomination and that combined with overseas tours and myriad TV appearances led to Porter’s popularity growing exponentially, so much so that when the signed to Blue Note and released ‘Liquid Spirit’ in 2013, his career exploded big time, especially in Europe.
Currently in the midst of a sold out UK tour, the seemingly unstoppable Gregory Porter – whose ability to connect with his listeners is the key to his appeal – releases this, his keenly-anticipated fourth album, which looks likely to equal if not surpass ‘Liquid Spirit’s’ achievements and also seems certain, in the process, to cement his place in the pantheon of all-time jazz and soul greats. Stylistically, ‘Take Me To The Alley’ adheres to the musical virtues that characterised Porter’s previous oeuvre: soulful self-penned songs rendered via spare, ungilded arrangements (piano, bass and drums) that are occasionally embellished by a jazz-inflected solo trumpet or saxophone. It’s a simple and effective, uncluttered, combination, allowing Porter’s magnificent voice to shine through in all its glory. The songs range from stoic exhortations on perseverance (‘Holding On’) to romantic meditations (‘Consequence Of Love’ and ‘In Fashion,’ the latter with echoes of Elton John’s ‘Benny & The Jets’ via its plodding rhythm and piano hook). The title track focuses on the downtrodden and ‘the afflicted’ of the world and is full of pathos, though never mawkish or tritely sentimental.
There’s also a poignant examination of a child’s innocence on ‘Day Dream’ (perhaps inspired by Porter’s own young son) and a paean to womanhood called ‘More Than A Woman,’ which is built on an elegantly gliding bass line. All of the material is memorable, well-crafted and deceptive in the way that the apparent simplicity of Porter’s songs masks his sophistication as a writer. Indeed, the artist that Gregory Porter most resembles is Bill Withers, perhaps – on a superficial level, Porter’s voice has a timbre similar to Withers’ but it’s his approach to songwriting that reminds me of the man that wrote ‘Use Me’ and ‘Ain’t No Sunshine.’ Withers was a master craftsman who worked simply within narrow and familiar parameters, serving up homespun wisdom and wry observations on humanity. Porter ploughs a similar furrow – and it’s one that resonates with and touches most people because the pictures that he paints, the characters he draws and emotions he describes are easily identifiable. He has the common touch, then, and perhaps that’s the key to this genial giant’s popularity. At the moment he can do no wrong and this brand new album – which is arguably his best yet – clearly demonstrates that the plaudits that he is receiving are truly justified. He is an exceptional artist who brings together the twin worlds of jazz and soul in beatific harmony. Long may he continue do so – the world is a much better place with Gregory Porter around.