Gregory Porter is an artist who has defied the trends of the modern music, in that he’s become one of the few jazz musicians to break into the consciousness of mainstream listeners. Liquid Spirit, Porter’s third album, became a top 10 hit in the UK and other European countries, and with some three years of touring and promotion behind him, the flat cap-wearing musician has practically become an ambassador for jazz. His fourth album, Take Me To The Alley, doesn’t have the rare alchemy that made its predecessor a crossover success, but there’s enough here to stir the heart and comfort the troubled mind.
Porter’s latest is an album of few surprises, at least musically: piano melodies fit for tasteful fine dining, saxophone cries like the laughing moon (In Heaven) and percussion that’s rarely in danger of sounding overenthusiastic. He’s confident about his speed, and he sticks with it.
That’s not say this record is devoid of flair – far from it. On more than a few tracks, such as Day Dream, Porter displays a masterclass in minimal, yet moving, songwriting; elsewhere, the slow-burning Holding On, a marvellous flip on the dance original with Disclosure, and the teetering rhythm of In Fashion capture the imagination. Don’t Lose Your Steam, an encouraging and pulsing dedication to Porter’s son, is one of a minority of up-tempo tracks, which include Fan the Flames and, closing song, French African Queen. The tone here is safe, traditionalist, as opposed to the recent experimental offerings of Terrace Martin and Esperanza Spalding.
But if it’s safety and reassurance you’re after, then it’s hard to think of a voice safer or more reassuring than Porter’s deep oaken timbre. It doesn’t take much for the Sacramento singer to enthral you with his words, and he does so with aplomb. He tells eloquent tales of how his heart was stolen by More Than a Woman (“She never walked on water / She never turned that water to wine… But she made my blind eyes see / She’s more than a woman to me”), of a kind-hearted king who seeks to befriend and pardon the afflicted ones (Take Me to the Alley), and he has the male response to Amy Winehouse’s Love is a Losing Game in Insanity – and also manages to knock you sideways with his bellows as he does so.
Take Me to the Alley is a conventional affair, then. Taken as a whole, it’s an accomplished album that is hard to fault: the music is crisp, Porter’s vocals are like brown sugar, and the songs themselves lull you into a cool state of calm. However, though it attempts to tussle with political ideas – as well as the ins and outs of love – it does so with little sense of urgency or drama. Compared to other records in the pantheon of contemporary music, Porter’s latest is diplomatic rather than radical, and patient more than it is bold. Though this trip to the alley illuminates few unexpected details, there’s still comfort to be found ruminating to its wholesome sounds.