The physical release of Gregory Porter’s first live album shows the jazz vocals master celebrating his roots and staking his claim in the genre.
On three nights in April last year, Gregory Porter took the stage at London’s Royal Albert Hall before sold-out audiences to remind listeners what fans and critics have been positing since 2010: He’s one of the strongest singers of his generation.
The two-time Grammy Award winner holds a unique position in the popular music world as a singer whose devotion is first and foremost to vocal performance. Plenty of strong singers are currently releasing music, but only artists like Sam Smith or Adele operate the way Porter does, with the integrity of each vocal performance consistently valued above its immediate cultural relevance—and even Smith and Adele have explored the opportunities available to them through pop music more frequently than Porter, who remains committed to his place in the modern jazz genre.
Influenced since childhood by Nat King Cole’s singing style, Porter released a tribute album of songs performed and inspired by Cole in 2017, all of which he revisited onstage during his London performances. Backed by the 70-piece London Studio Orchestra conducted by Vince Mendoza and Porter’s touring band of four (comprising pianist Chip Crawford, bassist Jahmal Nichols, drummer Emanuel Harrold and saxophonist Tivon Pennicott), Porter’s first evening onstage was what ultimately became One Night Only, a 19-part performance featuring two songs each from Porter’s Grammy-winning albums Liquid Spirit (“No Love Dying” and “Hey Laura”) and Take Me to the Alley (“In Heaven” and “Don’t Lose Your Steam”) and all 15 included on the deluxe edition of Nat “King” Cole & Me. Physical copies of the album and concert DVD, released digitally by Blue Note Records on November 30, available in physical form as of January 11.
“Better be good, huh?” Porter says in greeting to his audience of thousands as clarinetists initiate the opening number “Mona Lisa.” He’s joking, but the Hall’s prestige and Porter’s track record as a relatively new but prominent recording artist—his debut album Water earned Porter’s first Grammy nods in 2011—give the performance a weight that’s unique to this venue. Even so, Porter begins seamlessly, his swelling vocals complementing the orchestral flourishes that Mendoza originally created as Nat “King” Cole & Me’s arranger. In this way, the live album’s early songs have a lot in common with the polished recordings on Nat “King” Cole & Me—Porter’s vocals are steady as he remains in full control of his pacing, and the live setting benefits from Mendoza once again appearing at Porter’s side to lead the orchestra on the arrangements he knows just as well as Porter. Aside from a few rare comments, Porter doesn’t do much riffing between songs, so the transitions are fluid and closely mimic those of a studio album.
Porter told critics after the release of Nat “King” Cole & Me that picking which songs to include on the album was the trickiest part of the recording process. Luckily for Porter, he didn’t have to endure that selection process twice. Instead, he revives classics such as “L-O-V-E” and “Smile” onstage along with songs he’s cited personal connections with, including “Pick Yourself Up” and “When Love Was King,” the latter of which he wrote in tribute to Cole. Listening to Porter’s silky-smooth renditions is a pleasurable experience on its own—he’s a strong, steady vocalist, a master of his baritone vocal range who sounds like reaching the notes along that scale is for him an effortless exercise.
Watching him perform gives the experience a refreshing dimension. Standing straight behind the microphone dressed in a snappy navy suit and his signature black cap, Porter doesn’t move much aside from the occasional gesture and nod to underline a lyric. His lack of movement might have dulled the performance for those seated at a distance in the theater, but the concert film tells a different story. From one song to the next, Porter’s facial expressions rise and fall with the songs even as he maintains an underlying sense of calm. Watching Porter sing reveals the emotional connection he has to it all—the songs, the stage, the journey that led him to three sold-out shows at the Royal Albert Hall. And even though Porter takes pride in singing Cole’s songs, the smile that spreads across his face when he begins to sing his fan-favorite original “Hey Laura” is what really drives his enjoyment of the experience home.
Porter’s performance at the Royal Albert Hall is most rewarding in that it’s not flashy. He commands the stage without relying on gimmicks, embracing his artistic style by letting the remarkable quality of his voice do the heavy lifting. One Night Only shows Porter reinforcing his position as one of today’s major players in jazz vocal performance, a decision that feels both strategic and honest in enabling him to sing his best and continue to hone his style.