Jazz Album of the Week: Gregory Porter Is Back with All Rise—15 Original Anthems of Hope

Oct 12, 2020

October 12, 2020. All rise, the biggest male voice in jazz has returned. Although, strange as it may seem, that generous designation is actually limiting when talking about Gregory Porter. Because that amorphous place where jazz, gospel, blues, soul, and R&B all get together and cross streams—he presides with just as much authority there, too.

All Rise is Porter’s first new record in nearly three years and his most revelatory. To borrow a favorite exhortation of football coaches, it leaves no doubt. In the past, he’d been reluctant to explicitly give voice to his faith in his music, but, here, he goes and tells it on the mountain. We’ve heard Porter’s tributes to Nat King Cole, but, here, a close listener will be able to distill almost every thread of Porter’s musical sensibility.

This is no minimalist record. The one-time scholarship linebacker at San Diego State better known for his trademark deerstalker’s cap and that unmistakable gentle giant’s baritone still delivers hits—more than a couple here over the course of a 15-song, 73-plus minute epic. But these days he’s more like a quarterback supported by the biggest offensive line ever; he’s backed here by London Symphony Orchestra strings, killer horn arrangements by drummer, pianist and producer Troy Miller, a 10-voice choir and all the production grandiosity that Blue Note Records can bring to bear. Best of all, the big budget backing and slickly produced pyrotechnics don’t shield Porter from intimacy; they free him to take all the governors off.

Porter knows we live in cynical times, but his faith compels him to bet on his conception of love even if that means taking on the role of the credulous fool. It’s an idea that runs throughout the album and voiced most prominently on what are perhaps the album’s two most award-caliber cuts, “If Love is Overrated” and “Faith in Love.”

The former, the album’s second single, is, according to Porter, almost a love letter to love itself. If love is impractical and illogical in these most pessimistic of times, Porter’s ready to eschew pragmatism and reason for all time. If love is a creation of the Matrix, Porter’s the music industry’s Joe Pantoliano; he’ll choose the Matrix every time.

There’s post-postmodern sincerity in Porter’s voice and lyrics. The former is earnest without self-indulgence; the latter are clever yet humble. An impossible balance to strike, yet Porter walks that tightrope like a Wallenda.

To describe a piece of playing in music as sublime is so trite as to be nauseous in most cases. And yet, it’s really the only accurate way to describe longtime Porter collaborator Tivon Pennicott’s soprano saxophone solo here, which brings to mind Branford Marsalis’ soprano work on Sting’s “Englishman in New York”— maybe it has something to do with the concept of self-alienation that permeates both tunes.

Troy Miller’s arrangement for the LSO strings, backing Porter and then Pennicott, is spiritually elevating, ethereal yet baroque and, perhaps strangely, redolent of the string arrangements that backed Frank Sinatra on so many of his songs about his reason-defying, contrarian’s commitment to love.

The second of Porter’s pursuit-of-love-beyond-reason collection here is, conveniently, the very next tune, “Faith in Love.” It’s got all the ingredients that make a song so easy to make sarcastic sport of. But I just can’t do it; it’s the most uplifting song on the album. When Porter sings it, these ostensibly maudlin lyrics ring true. A cynical reviewer would be well within his right to be critical of the musically derivative elements here. And yet, the music—a combination of so many recognizable riffs and themes that it’s nearly sensory overload for the referentially inclined—is the most spiritually uplifting on the record.

It’s the type of song that totally transcends the sum of its individual parts primarily because of the innate majesty of Porter’s vocal presentation. The dude’s clearly channeling both Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers and—time for a slightly out of leftfield take here—maybe even a little early 2000s Seal. It doesn’t take the world’s sharpest ears to hear the chords, tempo, and groove of Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy, Me.” Femi Temowo’s guitar solo halfway through brings to mind the best of George Benson, and throughout the whole thing I can’t help thinking what an electric pair Porter would’ve made with Mister Magic, Grover Washington, Jr., on a tune just like this one.

Like so many of the 15 originals Porter’s written for this, his first full album of original work in four years, “Faith in Love’s” remarkable, not even so much musically, but most of all because its agendaless, apolitical positivity; eschewing the talking points of our hyper-tribal contemporary discourse almost comes off like an act of rebellion. In that way, it’s a transcendent tune, one we needed Porter to remind us we once knew.

Others maybe less deserving of industry hardware but just as likely to become rotation staples include tunes like “Revival,” “Mister Holland,” and “Phoenix.”

“Revival” is All Rise’s first single, and, musically, it compares favorably to much of the contemporary, pop-sheened southern gospel revival that’s been fodder for Christina Aguilera (“Ain’t No Other Man”), Duffy (“Mercy”), Moby (“Run On”), and the opening credits of seemingly every supernaturally dark HBO series set in the American South. That the general flavor of “Revival” has felt so ubiquitous over the past several years doesn’t take much away — the Motown-style brassiness and choir backing are natural mood enhancers. And it’s easy to see why, even on a generally accessible album, record company folks thought this the best candidate for a crossover hit.

“Mister Holland” finds Porter offering sarcastic thanks for the racist indignities visited upon him by the father of a high school crush while growing up in Bakersfield. Even his protest songs come from a place of such elevation and dignity and coolness. Porter skewers without breaking a sweat, while clearly paying homage to the late Bill Withers; a funk-soul tune like this would’ve fit squarely in Withers’ stylistic wheelhouse.

“Phoenix” is Porter’s proclamation that love is immortal. People have the power to batter and bruise it but never to kill it entirely. Love has the power to rise from the ashes, like a phoenix (from Arizona!), if only people give it the slightest indication that it’ll be worth love’s effort. A simple bass-guitar groove—set by Jahmal Nichols and Femi Temowo, respectively—steers the course of the tune’s ever-rising momentum, with the combo Fender Rhodes electric piano (Chip Crawford) and Hammond organ (Ondre Pivec) adding the magical suspension of disbelief that holds faith together. Horns arranged by trumpeter Etienne Charles are exclamation points heralding the reemergence of something both divine yet totally within our power—like getting up in the morning. So, for the love of love and AM coffee: rise, Rise, RISE!

Fans of Porter’s foundational smash hit, “Be Good” will swoon over the lullaby-like waltziness of “Merry Go Round,” a simple tune charmingly without a single toe on the ground.

At a time where seemingly all entertainment is marketed to either one interest group or another, an album like this, appealing to all time zones has transformational power. It might just be the perfect serum for your life’s resident nihilist.