Every year, the Albright-Knox "Art of Jazz" series releases a list of performers who will play during the upcoming season. The 2011-12 bookings were strong, featuring internationally prominent groups led by Houston Person, Enrico Rava and Donald Harrison, but the name that jumped out at me was Gregory Porter.
Why? Because I believe he is the most singularly arresting male jazz vocalist to come along in years.
Sunday afternoon's concert with Porter and his backing trio did nothing to change that opinion. The guy can flat out sing, and his band ain't bad either. He has a vocal quality that begs for comparisons -- Leon Thomas? Lou Rawls? Marvin Gaye? My best efforts to pin his flexible phrasing and subtle mannerisms down -- a semblance to either Bill Withers or Kurt Elling was the closest I got -- proved futile.
Ultimately that's a good thing, a mark that Porter's voice -- warm and redolent, capable at times of power and seduction -- is an amalgam of influences that yields its own unique rewards.
"Water," his first album, was nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album in the 2010 Grammy Awards presentations, and it wouldn't be a surprise, based on the songs heard during Sunday's show, if his forthcoming set, due on Valentine's Day, received a similar nomination.
Porter was an engagingly commanding presence on the stage. He crooned, rocked, and he held the "Art of Jazz" audience in thrall. He introduced each tune with evident good humor and then led his group through the changes, allowing his sidemen plenty of opportunities to showcase their talents but never leaving the audience to doubt where the artistic focus of the performance would end up.
The set list featured a fairly even mix of tunes from Porter's two albums with older favorites like "Skylark," "Work Song" and "God Bless the Child" playing nice with originals like the waltz balladry of "Be Good (The Lion's Song)" and the aggressive poetics of "1960 What?" It all went a long way toward providing a well-formed picture of the singer's abilities.
Two non-album songs, Kurt Elling's "Orange Blossoms in Summer Time" and the concert encore of "Mona Lisa" -- the classic most closely associated with Nat "King" Cole -- were other big favorites with the audience.
During the band's performance, you'd see a couple of people stand up and applaud after certain songs, but by the end of the concert, there was a near universal rising up of folks from their seats and shouting out their huzzahs.
Then, as a true mark of the concert's success, a deep line formed in front of the table selling Porter's album as audience members sought out a reminder of what they just witnessed.
It wouldn't necessarily be as spell-binding as the excellent show they'd just seen but they'd be happy nonetheless.