Gregory Porter’s Heartfelt Tribute to Nat King Cole

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Singer-songwriter Gregory Porter’s music has grown on me ever since I first heard his album Liquid Spirit four years ago. His songs felt convincing and truthful. And he really did tell the truth, with songs that radiated a heartfelt honesty. On Liquid Spirit, the track “Hey Laura” described a late-night visit to a woman he needed to talk to. He hates to bug her so late but tells her there’s something that’s bothering him that he needs to share. To me, the song simply stood apart from the lexicon of co-dependency that inhabits pop love songs.

The title track of Porter’s 2016 album, Take Me to the Alley, features the theme of Christ’s humility and his humanity. A man resplendent in fine robes comes into town. The townspeople greet him as the long-awaited savior and king, but he responds by saying, “Take me to the alley.” This song really hit me as a spiritual song but not a preachy one. Porter grew up with gospel music that nurtured him when he was young, and the influence is obvious in his deep and soulful music.

Porter’s just-released album, Nat “King” Cole & Me, is his most personal yet. At the age of five, Porter wrote and played a song for his mother, who complimented him, saying that he sounded like Nat King Cole. This sent him searching through his mother’s record collection looking for Cole’s recordings, and the nurturing sound of Nat Cole’s voice had a big effect on young Gregory. Growing up without a father, Cole became a surrogate father figure that helped fill the gap in his single-parent home, a way of filling the fatherless void. He literally was fed and nurtured by Cole’s timeless music and words of wisdom such as, “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again.” The lyrics of Cole’s songs would double as spiritual balm and fatherly advice.

Nat “King” Cole & Me celebrates Gregory Porter’s lifelong love of and connection to Nat Cole. The ballads on the new CD feature lush orchestral charts and arrangements by Vince Mendoza, one of the best arrangers and orchestrators working today. I can’t imagine a more felicitous pairing than this, and the album includes sweeping ballads like “Mona Lisa,” “When Love Was King,” “and “Nature Boy” with Porter backed by the London Studio Orchestra. American composer Cole Porter’s haunting classic “Miss Otis Regrets” gets a film noir treatment. As you listen, you can tell that Vince Mendoza likes Ravel and Debussy, Gil Evans, Billy May and Nelson Riddle. Mendoza is himself a modern master at arranging, orchestrating, and conducting, too.

The album also features Porter’s core band—pianist Christian Sands, bassist Reuben Rogers, drummer Ulysses Owens, and guest trumpeter Terence Blanchard—on some small group songs, such as the spirited “L-O-V-E” (see video below) and “Pick Yourself Up.”

For this album, Porter explained, “I went about selecting the songs like I always do – first in a very emotional way. I just gathered the songs that meant something to me over the years. There was a period in college when I had an injury to my shoulder and I needed music to soothe me at that time. So I ended up going back to Nat’s records. Then I did the same thing during the passing of my mother. In a way, there’s a familiarity and a calming effect to Nat’s music. Recording Nat’s music was very personal because I could hear and feel my mother. And I still feel myself searching for my father.” Not surprisingly, one of the most touching and personal songs on the album is the track, “I Wonder Who My Daddy Is.” Listening to it brought tears to my eyes.

Porter is not the typical pop icon or matinée idol. A big bear of a man, he always sports a puffy cap and wears a head covering that wraps around his chin. You want a hug from this teddy bear, and his music does that in a way. His honesty is comforting. Both Liquid Spirit and Take Me to the Alley won Grammy awards, and I think Nat “King” Cole and Me is headed for another one in Porter’s brief but already remarkable career.

Here is Porter’s rendition of “L-O-V-E”:

Banner image at top by Erik Umphery courtesy of Blue Note Records.