Gregory Porter is already a jazz star; scooping the Grammy for ‘Best Jazz Vocal Album’ twice already is adequate proof. Now, he is crossing into mainstream fame with appearances at venues such as the Royal Albert Hall, while also showing off his vocal talent on ‘The Graham Norton Show’ and ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. In this light, his new album, Nat King Cole & Me, should only further his general fame.
The album features a mixture of songs written or made famous by Nat King Cole and others that Porter describes as arranged in his style. On the record, Porter often works with a 70-piece orchestra, giving the songs the feel of those earlier musical times - free from technological intrusion.
The album has great personal importance to Porter as he identifies Cole as one of three great influences on his life after his mother and gospel music. The tracks chosen reflect the importance in Porter’s ‘life messages’, such as those given by his mother, who brought him up in the absence of a father figure. Autobiographical stories hover like a ghostly figure in the background of tunes in the second half of the album such as ‘The Lonely One’ and ‘I Wonder Who My Daddy Is’. However, Porter is no weak and weeping singer. The songs are often about sadness, but, as his mother would wish, they are treated in an uplifting way.
The album opens with some of Cole’s greatest hits. The second song, ‘Smile’, illustrates a life message of struggling through hard times. The use of the full orchestra, and its prominence in the mix, can make Porter’s voice seem less important. Yet, the sweeping strings are a renowned romantic device, and possibly part of the drive for the mainstream audience.
The arrangements are often slightly faster paced than many of Cole’s originals. ‘L-O-V-E’ sees this faster pace combined with only the rhythm section used from the full orchestra. The result is a perfect match: light instrumentation rests alongside Porter’s vocal’s to create a joyful atmosphere that draws a sincere smile.
The curate’s egg of arrangements by Vince Mendoza continues on ‘Miss Otis Regrets’. This opens with a Gershwin-like sweep of big-city sounds and then drops out into an appropriately, slow tempo for a politely understated lyric around a dramatic murder story. However, the orchestral break prior to the lynching verse seems too obvious an echo of those big-city sounds and insufficiently dark for the following action.
Throughout, Porter’s voice sounds more powerful than Cole’s and he often works better in the lower range where his breaks up can create strong emotion in the music. His diction is beautifully clear and does not have the slight, softening sibilance of Cole’s. For fans of his earlier work, it will be the tracks that put his voice to best use will be the most loved.
Porter offers something new a number of Cole’s best loved tracks, and this is perfectly exemplified to the right measure on ‘The Lonely One’ and ‘I Wonder Who My Daddy Is’. But the candidate for the best track on the album, 'When Love Was King', illustrates this element best. The track is an orchestrated reworking of Porter’s own tune from his earlier Liquid Spirit album. Porter’s voice and the orchestra work as a perfect team which lends the song a depth of soulfulness that fans will recognise from his earlier albums.
It’s clear the album will succeed in furthering Gregory Porter’s booming career. Its choice of arrangements and mixing may be taken as positives with his newer audience, while his existing fans will still find themselves sinking into some soulful gems.