A Jazz Man Considers ‘Musical Genocide’

Gregory Porter's album Liquid Spirit is rare for a black male artist.

Gregory Porter (Rob Verhorst/Getty Images)

Like most of Porter’s recordings, Liquid Spirit is marked by an element of whimsy that, despite the lumberjack cap he wears almost as a prop, comes off as sincere. In this regard Porter’s best musical moments recall Johnny Hartman’s sublime collaboration with John Coltrane (still an overlooked gem) or the Bobby Scott charts that Marvin Gaye first recorded in the late 1960s, which eventually became the posthumously released Vulnerable. In terms of storytelling, Porter’s music is apt to remind of Arthur Prysock’s interpretation of Walter Benton’s poetry on This Is My Beloved. Porter voice is sturdy and consistent, conjuring one of those Lowenbrau commercials that bore Prysock’s voice in the late 1970s (“Here’s to good friends…”) or drummer-vocalist Grady Tate, who has trained generations of musicians at Howard University.

Porter still struggles a bit in his musical compositions; there is a feeling of déjà vu, particularly on some of Porter’s ballads, giving the feeling that you’re listening to Liquid Spirit, Be Good (2012) and Water (2010) on a random shuffle. That Porter can sing anything rescues many of the more formulaic compositions.

The new recording is Porter’s first for the legendary Blue Note label. Though there are no efforts like the stunning “Be Good (Lion’s Song)” — the opening track “No Love Dying” comes close — and given the likely pressures to conform for a major jazz label (really an oxymoron), Liquid Spirit is surprisingly both more cohesive and daring than its predecessor. The one clear concession seems to be Porter’s cover of Dobie Gray’s “The In Crowd” — no doubt being bumped at your local hipster hang-out as I write this — and arguably the one track to be skipped on the new outing. 

As successful as Porter has been the past few years, there’s nothing in his body of work or his astute marketing that is likely to turn back the clock on the role of the black male jazz vocalist. Even the inevitable collaborations with label mate Robert Glasper (to jazz and hip-hop what the late Donald Byrd was to jazz and funk) will not likely return that train to the station, though Glasper’s not-often-enough collaborations with Bilal, who would have been at home with the jazz avant-garde of the black arts era, offer, perhaps, another lane.

For now we can enjoy the music of a brilliant singer and even more thoughtful lyricist, who is both unafraid and unashamed to carry the bloodstained banner for the country’s true classical form.

Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this article, the song “Musical Genocide” was mistakenly called “Musical Suicide.”

Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books, including the recent Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities and the host of the weekly video webcast Left of Black. He is professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University and a fellow at the HipHop Archive and Research Institute at Hutchins Center for Research in African and African-American Studies at Harvard University.