When: Fri., June 10, 8 p.m. 2016
Singer Gregory Porter achieved remarkable success with his fine 2013 debut for Blue Note, Liquid Spirit. The hard-hitting collection found an impressive new junction between 70s R&B and jazz—driven by a clear sense of righteousness, a la Bill Withers—and sold more than a million copies worldwide, netting the vocalist a Grammy. I’m not a big fan of contemporary jazz vocals, but Porter made me a believer, especially after a dynamite performance at the Chicago Jazz Festival later that year. He and his longtime producer, Kamau Kenyatta, clearly enjoyed the taste of success, because his new album Take Me to the Alley aims for a wider audience, edging away from jazz and even vintage soul toward a much more contemporary R&B sound. In fact, two tracks, “Holding On” and “Insanity,” are reprised at the end of the album with radio-friendly mixes featuring vocal cameos by, respectively, Kem and Lalah Hathaway. Porter isn’t solely concerned with his mass appeal, however: the empathic “Don’t Lose Your Steam” backs up its inspirational message with churning energy, while “Fan the Flames” swings like an Oscar Brown Jr. protest theme (rather than lighting a fuse he asks listeners to “raise your fists in the air and be sweet”). Porter sounds terrific throughout, employing his rich depth with gravitas and a killer sense of pitch, but many of the compositions fall flat, relying more on their intimate mood than on anything distinctive melodically or dynamically. Still, I’d put my money on Porter finding a way to make even those weaker songs connect from the stage.