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Gregory Porter, Royal Albert Hall review - impressive first night for the Nat King Cole & Me tour | reviews, news & interviews

Gregory Porter, Royal Albert Hall review - impressive first night for the Nat King Cole & Me tour

Gregory Porter, Royal Albert Hall review - impressive first night for the Nat King Cole & Me tour

Much more to this show than simple re-creation

Gregory Porter in 2011Tim Dickeson

It was 2011 when Gregory Porter made his first London appearances at Pizza Express in Dean Street. That club has a capacity just over 100, and yet it only seems like yesterday. Last night that same honeyed voice was filling the cavernous 5,272-seater Royal Albert Hall, on the first of 14 UK dates in big halls, with repertoire mostly associated with Nat King Cole, backed by his regular quartet, but also by the 70-piece London Studio Orchestra playing opulent arrangements by Vince Mendoza.

Back in 2011, the buzz about the uniqueness of Porter’s voice was only just starting. The canny director of the boutique European Festival Inntoene in Austria had heard him at St Nick’s Pub in the Sugar Hill district of Harlem, singing alongside local legends like Mansur Scott and Donald Smith and a band called the “Harlem Jazz Machine” and booked him in for his 2010 festival. Porter had started to record for Motéma.

Yes, things have moved onwards. St Nick’s Pub was closed down by the police in 2011 – incidentally it was destroyed in a fire just two weeks ago – while Motéma has ceded its place to Blue Note, and the rise to Grammys and glamour has been consistent, inexorable and well-deserved. It might seem like a different world, yet Porter’s modesty, and deep loyalty mean that his authenticity and his strong links to the past are still there: two members of the original “Harlem Jazz Machine”, pianist Chip Crawford and drummer Emmanuel Harrold are with him and the two other members of his quartet have been there nearly as long. They may have been sidelined for the Blue Note Nat King Cole & Me album from last year, but for Porter’s normal way doing things, all that hard work and the non-stop gigging, they’re back.

The Nat King Cole & Me album and touring project are as much Mendoza’s creation (pictured below left) as they are Porter’s. My companion last night found some of the near-stasis Sixties saccharine of the string arrangements hard to take, whereas I was tending to listen out for the endless inventivess of Mendoza’s countermelodies and the detail of the orchestration. The tempo of “For All We Know” was so slow, about crotchet equals 40, that it definitely gave us time to ponder such things.

Those slow tempi. Porter has been singing last night’s opener "Mona Lisa" heroically slowly for years – he does it on the Great Voices of Harlem album (Pao, 2014), and there is also bootleg video of him doing it with just Chip Crawford at the piano at the Vienna Jazz Festival in 2012, but in this Mendoza arrangement it stays stylistically close to Nelson Riddle. That is the kind of moment when one could get mired in a debate about creation versus re-inventing the wheel, but there is far more to this project than that.

Some of the arrangements work superbly. Mendoza takes Porter’s own impassioned song in tribute to Cole “When Love Was King”, starts it off with the delicacy of harp, then cor anglais, and proceeds to give the song an irresistibly powerful symphonic intensity build, leaving Porter to deliver the full-voiced pay-off alone over a silent fermata. That was a great moment. One senses Leonard Bernstein could have been proud of Mendoza’s “Miss Otis Regrets” arrangement. The arrangement of “The Lonely One” had sinuously chromatic episodes, and a countermelody which quoted “The Shadow of Your Smile”. The writing of “Pick Yourself Up” had lots of stab chords and sass. I had enjoyed “Ballerina”, which is one of the most successful tracks on the album, recorded by a top band in Capitol Studios Los Angeles, but this track became much muddier in live performance in the Royal Albert hall, where much of the detail disappeared off into the venue’s unpredictable acoustic. The small band numbers provided good contrast, with Porter’s joyous preacher-ish tone in “No Love Dying Here” particularly memorable.

And who was this impassioned and appreciative audience? Mixed age-group, definitely mixed-race, out to enjoy themselves in their thousands. It was heartening to read a few people posting on social media about how they had been invited to it for their 30th birthdays. Because that means they were born more than two decades after Nat King Cole passed away at the height of his fame.

Gregory Porter does indeed touch hearts. His loud sustained high note at the end of the official closer “Smile” earned the singer the first of his standing ovations of the night, and each of the two encores was greeted with the same adulation. Large audiences of all ages have grown to love Gregory Porter, and the attraction genuinely seems to be mutual.

@SebScotney

The 'Nat King Cole & Me' album and touring project are as much Vince Mendoza’s creation as they are Porter’s

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