Gregory Porter’s popularity as a singer/songwriter sets him apart within genres and categories – as of press time, Take Me To The Alley (Blue Note) is the first jazz record in the UK in 10 years to break into the top five album list, placing just behind Drake. It’s easy to become infatuated with his booming baritone voice, sweet soul jazz crooning and musical grooves. Porter has the same ability as Bill Withers to charm and comfort you, and get you to sing along. Alley is the follow-up to his Grammy-winning Liquid Spirit, a gorgeously crafted jazz album with pop leanings, and on it Porter strikes that unique balance again, leading with a stripped down yet more heartfelt version of “Holding On,” a tune first released as a DJ remix by electronica group, Disclosure. The songs have a stylistic malleability that easily crossover, whether as glorious ballads (“Consequence of Love”) or bluesy showstoppers like “Don’t Lose Your Steam.” Working again with producer Kamau Kenyatta and his terrific band – pianist Chip Crawford, bassist Aaron James, drummer Emanuel Harrold and saxophonist Tivon Pennicott, among them — Porter’s musical stories, particularly the blissfully percussive “In Heaven, “ which features a divine solo by trumpeter Keyon Harrold, is catchy enough to be your ear worm, but the tunes that ground the album and make it truly soar are the stirring title track, a smooth, silky “Insanity” and the lushly romantic “Don’t Be A Fool,” each of which illustrate Porter’s skill to mix poignancy with inspiration. That other voice you hear paired with Porter on these tracks is the angelic singer, Alicia Olatuja, a standout talent in her own right. (14 tracks; 60 minutes)
One of my top ten favorite jazz records in 2015 was the modern hybrid, Supreme Sonancy Vol. 1, a beguiling jazz-centric blend of soul music and hip hop. The highlight of that release was saxophonist Marcus Strickland’s chill-out remake of Janet Jackson’s “Let’s Wait Awhile,” and that vibe is layered through much of his illustrious Blue Note/Revive debut, Nihil Novi (Blue Note/Revive) which is Latin for “nothing new.” That self-effacing title isn’t entirely truthful since Strickland artfully traffics in aerodynamic samples and loops that underscore his laid back improvisational licks. While this very hip release, produced and steered by the multi-talented bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, has the kind of overt style and beats that makes the Revive label thrive, Ndegeocello and Strickland smartly feature the shimmering vocals of Jean Baylor on pop/soul charmers like “Talking Loud” — she’s a surefire VIP who, along with the rising star trumpeter Keyon Harrold, gives the album a notable flair. Strickland has crafted a consummate soul-jazz record with heartfelt songs, smooth harmonics and edgy sonic textures. (14 tracks; 50 minutes)
Funky licks and blistering squeals are to be expected of organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, godfather of the Hammond B-3, whose output in the 60s helped define soul-jazz for the era. He’s rarely deviated from his signature jazz and R&B sound and when he does – 2003’s Boogaloo To Beck: A Tribute was a welcome detour – it comes in the form of a record like Evolution, a significant return to the Blue Note label and a tribute to his super-sized talent. The rails are greased by a crackerjack horn section, a pair of power drummers and pumped up guest spots by pianist Robert Glasper and notably saxophonist Joe Lovano on the dreamy ballad, “For Heaven’s Sake.” Guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg is Smith’s foil, delivering wicked, grinding riffs, jangling rhythmic support and lush, melodic solos. Evolution sets itself apart by letting Smith loose on updated originals and fresh tracks like “Talk About This” and “African Suite,” that connect the dots from the pivotal early days to the present, where the Doctor takes the lead as a hip, dynamic authority of modern grooves and moves. (7 tracks; 63 minutes)
A TOP RECORDING OF 2015. Singer/songwriter Jose James has a fluid baritone that smolders as much as it seduces. His original albums veer easily from jazz to soul and pop to grinding rock and rhythm and blues, which tells you he’s not especially hemmed in by labels or genre. As a composer and narrator, he croons as a friend, brother, a confidant or a lover. On stage, he works a persona that’s vulnerable and often sensual, with an effortless charisma and natural charm. He’s a connector — which makes him an ideal interpreter of the songs of Billie Holiday. Continue reading
Without a doubt, drummer Otis Brown III is narrowing the divide that keeps jazz segregated from mainstream (read: marketable) recordings. Brown’s terrific debut, The Thought Of You, is a collaborative production from Revive Music and Blue Note and it’s a winner as fitting a release on the classic Blue Note label as anything they released in the ‘60s. The innovative drummer’s facility and outsized talent was already apparent backing Joe Lovano’s Us Five band, Terence Blanchard and Oliver Lake over the last few years. Continue reading
A TOP JAZZ RECORD OF 2014. Sometimes jazz has to open doors to invite new fans and listeners in, an idea that visionary pianist Jason Moran approaches squarely and adroitly on All Rise. It’s an album unlike anything else he has produced. Continue reading
A TOP 10 JAZZ RECORD OF 2014: For listeners who want to put the usual standards and post bebop swing on pause, the 33 year-old trumpeter Takuya Kuroda stands tall on his Blue Note debut, Rising Son, a polished set of jazz tunes with retro R&B riffs and de rigueur hip hop sonics. Produced by singer/songwriter José James whose own records, particularly 2013’s No Beginning, No End (Blue Note), smartly braid jazz with pop-glazed rhythm and blues, Kuroda’s album sets an after-hours party mood that starts with the rousing title track and flows throughout. Kuroda’s compositions fuse infectious urban rhythms with in the pocket Afro-centric grooves inflated by keyboardist Kris Bowers (an artist blowing up on the national scene with his Concord Jazz debut CD, Heroes + Misfits), electric bassist Solomon Dorsey, drummer Nate Smith and the satiny tones of trombonist Corey King. Kuroda and King redefine the classic two-horn frontline architecture that Blue Note built their reputation on. As a player, the trumpeter falls somewhere between Lee Morgan’s sound and Art Farmer’s supple capacity for storytelling, especially on the closing track, “Call,” an opus of sorts characterized by a classic CTI-style arrangement melded with a Prince-like jam coda.
Singer and songwriter Gregory Porter’s baritone is one the most captivating instruments in present day jazz. Deep and sonorous, it’s matched by the affability and charisma of the singer who grew up in his mothers’ church and cites the Bakersfield Southern Gospel Sound as well as his family’s Nat King Cole record collection as key influences. On his two previous records for the independent Motema label, Waterand Be Good (the latter was this writer’s picks for the best jazz vocal album in 2012,) Porter established himself as a modern troubadour and most directly carries on the tradition of Bill Withers and Sam Cooke by writing his own uplifting, meaningful and positive songs. Continue reading
The Blue Note debut of the pop and jazz singer José James, No Beginning, No End, so resolutely taps into the vein of classic American soul music that he invites impulsive comparison to artists like Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers and Al Green.
Saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, in appearance and style, is undeniably his father’s son, yet he’s forged his own well-regarded career culminating in last year’s potent Blue Note release, Spirit Fiction, a recording that ended up on many “best of” lists. Fast forward to a 6-day residency at New York’s The Jazz Standard in support of the album that put Coltrane in front of three different quartets, allowing this distinctive musician to play material within various contexts. The performance I attended on February 26 was the first night of this set of gigs, and focused on a band that until that evening had never played with Coltrane as a group before — pianist/keyboardist Billy Childs, bassist Lonnie Plaxico (both experienced musicians) and a young drummer, Ms. Nikki Glaspie, a recent Berklee graduate and member of Beyonce’s touring band. Continue reading