Review: Gregory Porter Raises Spirits At iTunes Festival

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For all the hype surrounding Gregory Porter, there’s a lot that’s concerning about his band. Don’t get me wrong, the man in the hat is flawless, as good as all the Grammy plaudits make him out to be, and if you haven’t seen him live you really ought to. On stage, he’s every bit as charming and charismatic as his lyrics suggest and his voice is like nothing else. It’s a voice of warmth and mellow fruitfulness that crackles like a log fire and sounds even better up close than it does on record.

Appearing as part of the month-long iTunes Festival at the Roundhouse in Camden, the singer was on typically magisterial form, launching straight into a rendition of Donny Hathaway classic ‘Someday We’ll All Be Free’ with the crowd already in the palm of his hand. From there, he strolled through ‘On My Way To Harlem’, exploring gentle dissonances and freeing up the melody, and followed it with the heartache of ‘No Love Dying’. One of the highlights of the set, it finished with a bittersweet cadenza on which Porter’s vocal was as dark and rich as mahogany.

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Tracks from all three of his albums showcased the full extent of his musical and emotional range. A duet with Laura Mvula on ‘Water Under Bridges’ was a nice touch and ended with both singers riffing on the words “London Bridge is falling down”. A fiery rendition of ‘Musical Genocide’, the smouldering ‘1960 What?’, prefaced by falsetto improv, and the dirty blues of ‘Work Song’ whipped up the crowd, with the sonorous bass-notes and wistful melody of ‘Wolfcry’ and the melancholy charm of ‘Be Good’ rounding out the set. But, while Porter could do no wrong, when he stepped back from the mic it was sometimes, depressingly average.

The singer has been with his group since the beginning. They met during jam sessions at St Nick’s Pub in Harlem, they’re his musical comfort blanket and his loyalty to them is commendable. But at times it feels like he’s outgrown them, with the mismatch in quality plainly apparent in a live setting. Though alto sax player Yosuke Sato, pianist Chip Crawford, bassist Aaron James and drummer Emanuel Harroldnever quite ruined things, they came dangerously close. Outside of the groove, all four men have shaky time and seemed intent on playing showboaty lines that weren’t fully under their fingers. The result was a gratuitous blur of haphazard noodling, a splurge of high-energy licks and tasteless patterns.

Though it’s encouraging to see improvisation being brought to a mainstream audience, it could be so much better. As it is, the group are at risk of alienating their more discerning listeners and, for the sake of the music, it may be time for Porter to move on. Just imagine how good he could sound if he did.

– Thomas Rees

This article was originally published on jazzwisemagazine.com

Review: Joshua Redman, Gwilym Simcock And Wolfgang Muthspiel: Three Giants Of Contemporary Jazz Join Forces At Wigmore Hall

When American saxophonist Joshua Redman, British pianist Gwilym Simcock and Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel took the stage in front of a packed Wigmore Hall on Thursday night, they had never played together as a trio, save at a rehearsal the day before the concert. According to an excitable Redman, even that was brief. “I knew it was going to be cool,” he said, describing his delight at being able to work with two musicians he had long admired, “but, after about 10 minutes we didn’t need to rehearse any more. It was more than cool!” As was their set, the final part in the saxophonist’s three concert jazz series at the hall, which had all the freshness and excitement you’d hope for from a first encounter.

Simcock’s ‘Shanty’ provided a gentle start to the proceedings, opening with an icey wash of piano and guitar that made way for Redman’s soprano. The tune’s simple melody launched solos of increasing intensity, with Redman scanning the changes and nodding approvingly, his bottom lip thrust out, as Simcock moved things up a gear. ‘Double Blues’, a Muthspiel composition with a cat-and-mouse unison head, came next, featuring a blistering solo from the guitarist that juxtaposed choppy chordal work with fluid bop lines and thrillingly long holds that floated above Simcock’s walking bass notes, resolving in the nick of time.

A smoky tenor sax introduction became Redman’s ‘High Court Jig’, its reel-like groove drifting towards dissonance before shying away, as Simcock turned the time signature inside out and Muthspiel contributed percussive backings on the muted strings of his guitar. Two standards followed: ‘’Round Midnight’ was brought to life by electronic swells from the guitarist and Redman’s reworking of the melody, which curled upwards towards pitch-perfect altissimo before finishing in the mud of his lower register; while Brubeck’s ‘In Your Own Sweet Way’ was prefaced by a piano segue of exquisite beauty – a filigree of intricate lines and glistening harmonies.

The remainder of the set brought further displays of frightening virtuosity, spontaneous risk-taking and masterful control, as the musicians continued to sound one another out, with Redman unleashing funk-tinged riffs and treacherous screes of notes. And in the end it took two encores, a break neck rendition of ‘The Eternal Triangle’, which pushed all three men to the edge, and the tenderness of ‘I Hear a Rhapsody’, to silence the crowd. Were this one-off collaboration to lead to something more regular (it should), it would be fascinating to watch it develop. But if it does, let’s hope it can retain some of the thrilling uncertainty and sense of adventure that made this first outing such a pleasure to watch.

– Thomas Rees

This article was originally published on jazzwisemagazine.com