What more can be said or written about Gregory Porter that’s not already been said or written? Since his emergence in 2012, the 6′ 3″ soulful jazz cat in the cap has taken the world by storm and seduced it with an irresistible combination of formidable God-given talent, personal magnetism and disarming humility. This former chef is, without doubt, a peerless singer and songwriter who has helped to revive a mainstream interest in jazz and almost singlehandedly made it a viable commercial commodity again – and he’s done that without diluting the art form for mass consumption. And all the while, he’s remained true to himself and, perhaps, more importantly, to jazz’s spirit of improvisation and capturing the moment.
Since his debut as a relatively unknown recording artist at Cheltenham in 2013, he’s returned to perform there every year. It’s no exaggeration to state that the Gloucestershire spa town has adopted the Californian singer as its own and regards him as a returning local hero. Indeed, the place is almost like a second home to Porter, as he acknowledged to the audience at his concert that closed the festival. “It’s a beautiful little village that’s been created for this festival …and it feels good to come back,” he said. But there was no resting on his laurels by Porter here even in such a familiar environment in front of adoring fans and he pulled out all the stops in a breathtaking show that lasted two hours. Though it started in a low key manner, with the stoical ballad, ‘Holding On,’ the pace of the show picked up for an electrifying ‘On My Way To Harlem,’ which was taken at a break-neck tempo. In the main, Porter mostly served up renditions of material from his last two Blue Note LPs, the best-selling ‘Liquid Spirit’ and ‘Take Me To The Alley.’ But though these two albums were embraced by mainstream listeners, they included songs that featured jazz style solos and here, the singer’s superlative band, ramped up the jazz quotient with extended passages of dazzling extemporisation. Pianist Chip Crawford and saxophonist Kamau Kenyatta impressed greatly with their instrumental prowess while bassist Jahmal Nichols and drummer Emanuel Harrold functioned as a dependable but also occasionally flamboyant rhythm section (each musician was given the opportunity to show their skills during long unaccompanied passages near the end of the show).
Though blessed with a powerful set of lungs, Porter showed his innate sensitivity on the gentle ballads, ‘Hey Laura,’ ‘In Fashion,’ and ‘Consequence Of Love,’ and then showed a more declamatory side on the rousing ‘Musical Genocide’ which was preceded by a souped-up version of the Temptations’ ‘Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone.’ Porter then demonstrated his strong gospel roots by taking the audience to church with ‘Liquid Spirit’ and an impassioned version of the jazz standard, ‘Work Song.’ For the inevitable encore, Porter mellowed things down with the uplifting groove-ballad, ‘No Love Dying, ‘ where he engaged in impromptu call-and-response vocals with the audience. It brought the curtain down on a memorable evening that not only affirmed Gregory Porter’s prodigious talents but also underlined the importance of the Cheltenham Jazz Festival as a UK platform for showcasing the best musicians from around the world.