Maybe that is why Porter’s compositions, no matter the theme, possess such unerring grace and sweetness. It dwells in the bittersweet nostalgia of love lost, on the opening duet “Illusions” with pianist Chip Crawford; in the desert shimmer and glittering ornaments of “Pretty,” which the ensemble renders with the quicksilver lyricism of a fugue; in the whimsy, light-filled joy of “Magic Cup.” Even the righteous epic “1960 What,” with its succession of horn solos that wax martial or indignant, arcs toward a catharsis in trumpeter Melvin Vines’ plaintive scream.
Beneath it all courses water, the album’s title element and, says Porter, an almost accidental guiding theme that manifested itself as the work took form. The Nile, water of ancestry. The water the slaves crossed in the Middle Passage and in which so many met their end. Baptismal water, the water of belief and redemption. Urban water that rains down onto windows and pavements, tears away grime and gushes angry into gutters. And pastoral water too, the water of morning dew and gentle streams.
“The points in the music in which water comes up, for me, are the most killing moments on the album,” Porter says. But those riverine qualities �— ebb and flow, swell and release �— are hallmarks of the album as a whole, and of the way Porter, as a vocalist, approaches a single song. “I’ll start big and go down, start small and get big �— there’s an emotional arc I go through, and I try to have a beginning, a middle and end to each song.” Blessed with great texture, warmth and control, he can cast away the crutches of formalism, and moan and holler or whisper and hesitate before bringing it all back home.
The blues is overt on Water. So are gospel and soul. Addressing these core seams of American music is as important to Porter as is appreciating the jazz songbook or the legacy of his hero Nat King Cole. In the textures of church and country dwell the echoes of Porter’s childhood in Bakersfield, CA., a place where agriculture and opportunity drew Black folks from the South.
“That’s where I got the gospel rearing I have,” Porter says. “Outdoor services in the dirt, a woman from Texas with three gold teeth in her mouth, singing her heart out. I don’t know if I would have got that if Bakersfield was slicker.” The place owned a kind of rough beauty: “Mornings the sun was bright and we’d go out and lie on some cement, there were birds and lizards and the smell of jasmine and honeysuckle, the water in the gutter seemed like it was a stream.”
Porter’s music still brims with this keenness to the lyricism of small things. He carried it through his training, the years of musical theatre in regional productions and a long Broadway run of “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” that established him on the New York scene. His artistic pantheon includes Cole, Joe Williams, Jimmy Witherspoon, King Pleasure but also Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gave.The a cappellas of Mahalia Jackson inspired his solo delivery of the classic “Feeling Good,” this album’s coda.
An old soul, Porter could not help but turn Water into a generational encounter, anchored by the stirring contribution of the great James Spaulding on “Black Nile” and “Wisdom,” a song of deep spiritual force. Crawford and Vines represent the new old-heads; the rest of the band are young guns on the New York scene. They recorded in a big open room, running the tunes down straight, top to bottom: “I wanted to get a live sound, the feeling of this music just coming together,” Porter says. “Any cool things that happened, just happened. That’s the way it went down.”
These days, Porter makes his home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn; when he’s not on tour, he’s often found in Harlem, stirring the hip, diverse crowd at the venerable St. Nick’s Pub. The city has changed; so has the country, and even the music as well. What Gregory Porter knows, and shares in his music, is that the spirit and the beauty remain.
-- Siddhartha Mitter