Gregory Porter ‘Nat King Cole And Me’ LP/CD/DIG (Decca/Blue Note) 3/5

Singer Gregory Porter has made his reputation in the United Kingdom as both a fine interpreter of classic soul and soul-jazz, as well as stretching out into singer-songwriter territory and his wonderful concert at the Lowry a few years back was testimony to his calm presence in a live context. For this new project, however, the focus is entirely on one of his seminal influences, the late and great Nat King Cole. This has in fact been a project in germination for a decade or so since before Porter came to the attention of the wider musical community, he worked on a theatre and music show in New York devoted to Cole’s work and this in turn inspired Gregory to develop his own songwriting skills and that proved to be the catalyst for his career to take off. Here, he enlists the fine arranging and conducting talents of Vince Mendoza who is arguably the most gifted jazz conductor of his generation and whom this writer has witnessed at work in live performance on more than one occasion.

If anything, some of the readings of these classic songs are a tad too safe for these ears, but that is not to say the music itself is devoid of merit. Far from it. Where the feel is looser and the rhythm section takes hold, Gregory and the band really begin to cook, and they excel on the uplifting mid-tempo numbers such as, ‘Pick yourself up’, with some stunning woodwind arrangements, with the glitz and tinsel town of Hollywood evoked, and this is a truly swinging rendition with fine piano work. An epic orchestral sound with soaring strings embellishes the listener’s pleasure on, ‘Miss Otis regrets’, with the undercurrent of the rhythm section hinting at action, and some restrained horn arrangements. There is a light, whimsical feel that permeates, ‘L-O-V-E’, with the trio in the ascendancy and a trumpet solo of distinction.

Where this writer would like a little more deviation from the norm is on the more famous pieces such as the immortal ‘Mona Lisa’, or the sole representation of Cole’s two Latin albums, the sumptuous ‘Quizas, Quizas, Quizas’, where in both cases the treatment verges on the safe side of the tracks. No questioning of the stylish arranging on the latter, though ,with just the right dose of percussion, and an atmospheric string-led intro. Could these songs have been infused with a slightly left-field tempo, or at least something to mark an individual imprint of Porter’s own making? Part of the problem may simply be the reverence with which the singer holds Nat King Cole and that is perfectly understandable given the monumental contribution that Cole made to the world of music. One omission of material that does stand out is Cole the pianist and, while Gregory Porter is primarily on hand to pay a vocal tribute, it is a pity that he did not take a leaf out of the theatre show and creatively weave a monologue into the homage, allowing the trio to stretch out on a couple of numbers. This may well be the strategy in a live setting and, perhaps, a live accompanying album is arguably the most appropriate way in which to hear this music. An extra three songs are included on the vinyl edition and were not available to review on the CD press copy. Otherwise, a praiseworthy attempt and there will be eager anticipation for the UK tour that commences in April 2018.

Tim Stenhouse