Music Review: An Intimate Evening With Gregory Porter, Or Jazzed By Warmth

January 28, 2023

 

By BRUCE DENNILL

 

An Intimate Evening With Gregory Porter / Teatro, Montecasino, Fourways

 

Sub-genre titles often feel like some in publicity trying to fill space without being terribly sure of what they’re talking about. But in Gregory Porter’s case, the term “soul jazz”, which comes up often in descriptions of his work, fits the bill rather well. Most of the soul part of that equation comes from Porter himself, a large man with a warm presence and a rich, honeyed baritone. Tie in a knack for songwriting storytelling and a cheerful spirituality and the famously behatted singer creates both an amiable mood and an authoritative focal point for the audience.

He doesn’t have it all his own way, though. It may be Porter’s name on the posters, but his band has at least equal drawing power once things get going. Tivon Pennicott on saxophone, Chip Crawford on piano, Ondrej Pivec on organ, Jamahl Nichols on bass and Emanuel Harrold on drums showcase a level of musical skill on a par with the likes of Stevie Wonder or similar, capable of colouring in every part of Porter’s very clever but somewhat less textured writing with a pantone panoply of musical light and shade. They bring the jazz part of the sub-genre tag, and Porter appears to be as much a fan as he is a bandmate, retreating to a stool near Crawford’s grand piano during the instrumental passages of his compositions, and loving the thrill of the duelling solos that often spark across the U-shaped layout of the performance area.

With each song including both aspects of this formula – the gorgeous timbre of Porter behind the mic and the virtuosic intricacy of the band – there is always something to watch and listen to, and enough time (these are not three-minute pop ditties) to properly appreciate the gifts on display.

Arguably the high point of the set arrives in Take Me To The Alley – a notion that seems ill-advised when visiting Johannesburg – which brings in a gospel heart and lyrical thread about what constitutes real love: eschewing the showy, indulgent presentation of virtue signalling for the getting into the muck and mire of the real lives of “the afflicted ones” (not a phrase you hear much in popular music).

As a microcosm of the show as a whole, the song communicates the depth of Porter’s offering – both writing and performing – and for all the romance and elegance and suavité of the overall package, it is this that is perhaps the most enduring facet of the concert once the lights go down.

As a support act, Msaki mixed the activism and tunefulness of Ani DiFranco, Tracy Chapman and Angelique Kidjo with South African references to create something as affecting as it is naggingly catchy.

 

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