There’s a new album out by Gregory Porter. It comprises 12 tracks of soul-jazz. “Like Gil Scott-Heron? Like Marvin? Or Doug Carn and Leon Thomas?” I hear you cry as you rise from your chairs. Think again. Said music historian Nelson George in 2005 (in The Observer): “Growing up in a black neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York in the Sixties and Seventies, I found ‘soul’ everywhere. First, there was soul music, led by James Brown, soul brother number one, and Aretha Franklin, soul sister number one…Dr King had soul… James Baldwin had soul… Soul was a one word summation of our spirit, our desires and self-esteem.”
How things change. These are vexed political times we live in today wherein identity has all too easily been misplaced or lost. And when that happens, in the US in particular, the music suffers. So with this in mind, we come to Take Me To The Alley by Gregory Porter who, in becoming the darling of a mainstream that hates to gamble with anything remotely contentious, returns to the airwaves to enchant and remind us of how good music once was.
Everything from Nat King Cole and Lou Rawls to Fela Kuti rears into view, albeit fleetlingly, when listening to this record, the voice emanating from that swaddled head swimming soothingly from the speakers, a warm salve, harkening back to an era when African American artists sang differently and made good money when they did so. Yet on this new album, Porter arrives polished and assured, a safe presence further asserting himself in an industry itself growing more assured at realising huge revenues, while at the same time refusing to invest in the genuinely novel.
So there’s the problem. It’s a non-threatening album that leaves you curiously unmoved. There is political invective in a Kenny Dorham-style bop tune like ‘Fan The Flames’, but the rest of the album possesses an “almost” feel. It comes across as “essence” of soul and jazz, but what Porter’s voice lacks in dimension, it makes up for in richness. ‘Consequence Of Love’ possesses a meditative lounge soul while the spaciousness of ‘Take Me To The Alley’ and ‘In Fashion’ helps alleviate the predictable Muscle Shoals chug of a tune like ‘Don’t Lose Your Soul’. The album’s final two tracks (‘Fan The Flames and ‘French African Queen’) find Porter slipping comfortably into a (big) band setting which perhaps, for him, is the best fit. That said, the album is a pleasant, cosseting experience. But in this day and age of grin-and-bear-it social tumult, it is perhaps better that an album informs, if not the mind, then the soul. Anything else is just a musical idiom best described as ersatz.
Take Me To The Alley is released on 6th May via Decca Records.