When Gregory Porter took center stage at the Cistern at the College of Charleston Friday night to open the Wells Fargo Jazz Series for Spoleto 2013, his signature hood-like hat encased his head, allowing only his face to show. My immediate thought was, "Hmm, did he think it was going to be cold?" But then I began to wonder, "Somebody must have told him about the mosquitoes." The frivolous nature of my thoughts quickly disappeared as Mr. Porter opened his mouth and the baritone crooned for the next hour and a half. I'm not ashamed to admit it, but I may have swooned once or twice.
Essentially a full house of apparent jazz lovers listened, applauded, participated and then leapt to their feet at concert's end. And what a concert! Porter's voice is lovely; there's no other way to describe it. Just when you think you've categorized it, Porter takes a phrase and places it so perfectly between the music and your heart, you're surprised by it. Although Porter has the capacity to riff and scat and holler with the best of them, he is a straight-ahead jazz singer, emotionally and rhythmically connected to the tunes he sings, even as he demonstrates he has the capacity to make the music leap forth, like a dancer's pirouette into a full Russian — snatching your breath away. Porter's voice explodes forth unexpectedly at times, as unexpected as another of his signatures, one hard clap of his hands as he finishes a phrase and his pianist, Chip Crawford, or his alto sax player, Yosuke Sato, picks up. His lyrics are clear and connected, beautifully phrased and filled with the energy of the song. His "Work Song," begun a capella and eerily rendered under the Spanish moss and imposing columns of Randolph Hall, had me holding my breath and rocking gently as I was able to envision every picture he painted of a man scooped up by a chain gang as penance for a crime he swears he didn't commit.
Mr. Porter is charming, too, as he patters between songs. He connects to the audience in a real way, making us laugh out loud as he shares a story he already recognizes might not be going anywhere. You can tell he likes being up there. You can tell he likes his band, often communicating only through his hands or facial expressions, smiling in appreciation for a pristinely delivered solo. And his band smiled a lot, looking surprised at times by a new riff or simply in acknowledgement of what they were hearing musically from one another. It was fun to watch, and it was particularly fun to hear. Crawford was the quintessential jazz pianist, leaning into the music, body off balance as his shoulder raised, his torso twisted, and his fingers flew. On alto sax, Sato lifted us and shook us with his unpredictable solos and where they may lead. Porter's drummer, Emanuel Harrold, and his upright bass player, Aaron James, laid back for much of the night, but when their solos came, they were met with hoots and sustained applause.
If you're looking for jazz standards, the only one I remember from last night was "Skylark," the old Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael tune. And let me say, Porter ripped it, from the first familiar chords placed by his pianist to the ending notes he purred in his dark silky voice.
Porter is the real deal. Get out there and hear this man and his boys.