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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Album review: Gregory Porter’s Take Me to the Alley is ear pleasingly beautiful

The songwriting is so tight, the production so ear-pleasing, and Porter's voice so consistently warm, yet thinking listeners – the kind who would not ordinarily duck and cover from the word “jazz” – might feel underwhelmed with a product that plays it so very safe.
Album cover image of Take Me to the Alley by Gregory Porter. Courtesy Blue Note Records
Album cover image of Take Me to the Alley by Gregory Porter. Courtesy Blue Note Records

Take Me to the Alley

Gregory Porter

Blue Note Records

Three stars

American vocalist ­Gregory Porter’s fourth LP opens with Holding On, a song that dance-music fans will recognise as the lead single from British house duo Disclosure’s second album, Caracal.

It is totally reworked here as laid-back jazz-blues, thankfully – not because the original was bad, but its driving electronic beats would stand out like a black-and-blue thumb among the lazy, after-hours charm of Porter’s own work.

Still, it is a telling choice, which says more about ­Porter’s fortunes than ­Disclosure’s. Guaranteed ­hitmakers, the dance duo also called on Sam Smith, The Weeknd and Lorde to ­collaborate. Porter was the wild card, elevated into the fold following 2013’s Grammy-winning Liquid Spirit, which went top 10 and sold more than 100,000 copies in the United Kingdom alone – the kind of success enjoyed by jazz artists but once a decade. As we went to press, he held five of the top-10 spots on amazon.co.uk’s jazz chart.

Why is Holding On such a telling album opener? It is because this is not really jazz in the purist sense of word. The tight arrangements, steady verse-chorus structures and limited use of improvisation paint Porter as much a soul singer or bluesman.

Supported primarily by a sparse palette of drums, bass and piano – with the occasional sax solo thrown in, because that’s what this music demands – there is both a refined intimacy and keen melodic sense to the set.

Don’t Lose Your Steam and Day Dream balance a nodding, economic soul strut with tidy pop choruses. That’s not a problem in itself, but there’s something a little insubstantial in Porter’s effortlessly unhurried approach, a perhaps-too-heady whiff of easy listening.

The hummed intro of More Than a Woman is more ­dentist’s chair than smoky jazz club. The title track is a beautifully simple ballad – but it is the first of one-too-many overly smooth moments that might make a great dinner-party accompaniment, but demand little more of your attention (see also In Heaven, Insanity).

There’s less of the novelty and verve that balanced out Liquid Spirit on display – the most upbeat, jazziest moments are saved until last: restless bopper Fan the Flames and brass and scat attack French African Queen genuinely cook. But it is notable they are both buried at the back of the set.

The track order says more about Porter’s audience than his talents. The songwriting is so tight, the production so ear-pleasing, and his voice so consistently warm and welcoming there is really nothing to object to.

But that represents a backhanded compliment. Thinking listeners – the kind who would not ordinarily duck and cover from the mention of the word “jazz” – might feel underwhelmed with a product that plays it so very safe.

rgarratt@thenational.ae