Grammy-winning jazz maestro Gregory Porter recently released his tribute album Nat King Cole & Me in honour of the late singer, who Porter has described as being at “the root of my inspiration”. Growing up without a father in his life, Porter has explained that Nat King Cole’s music “filled a void in me…and Nat’s words were the life lessons, words of wisdom and fatherly advice I needed”. With the poignancy of this explanation in mind, it’s clear even before listening that the album will be full of nostalgia and warmth.
Few records on the more mainstream music scene in 2017 open with layered flutes, yet within the first few bars of first track ‘Mona Lisa’, Porter creates the perfect opening for an album which nods to 1950s crooners. ‘Smile’ follows up, perhaps one of Cole’s most-loved numbers; with the original first sung some eight decades ago by the song’s composer, Charlie Chaplin. With Porter’s vocals not too far from the original, the 50s jazz legend’s influence is most evident here, with the lyrics an emotional message given Porter’s connotation of fatherly wisdom with Nat King Cole; the piece boasts timeless lines such as, “smile, what’s the use of crying/you’ll find that life is still worthwhile”.
Yet the smooth vocals aren’t the only beauty of this record. With Gregory Porter’s fifth album marking his first to be recorded with a full seventy-piece orchestra, under six-time Grammy-winning conductor Vince Mendoza, the richly layered brass, string and wind arrangements contribute to the absorbing atmosphere Porter strives to recreate in covering Nat King Cole’s classics.
it’s proof Porter can cover a range of emotions within his pieces and triumph
‘Nature Boy’ and ‘L-O-V-E’ follow up next, with the latter picking up the pace on the album and the most romantic piece so far; Porter’s 2017 arrangements sublimely captivate the essence of the song with rhythmic jazz and snare drums and foot-tapping-inducing double bass, as well as smooth brass solos. Of the subsequent percussion- led track ‘Quizas, Quizas, Quizas’, (‘Maybe, Maybe, Maybe’), Porter has said he chose to perform the song in its original Spanish and definitely “felt the emotion of the song”. An instrumental break in the song bursts between Porter’s soulful verses to result in a section which wouldn’t be out of place in a Hollywood romance film from the era in which Nat King Cole peaked in fame.
A theatrically instrumental introduction launches the opening of ‘Miss Otis Regrets’, a piece which has previously been sung by a cache of industry stars, from Fred Astaire to Ella Fitzgerald, before ‘Pick Yourself Up’ comes in. Another of the light-hearted pieces from Cole’s collection, it’s proof Porter can cover a range of emotions within his pieces and triumph. ‘When Love Was King’ may appear as a play on words among this album’s track list, yet it’s an original of Porter’s, from 2013 record Liquid Spirit. However, its new arrangement means it doesn’t sound out of place among the pieces from Cole and his reworked numbers.
As the album draws to a close with some more finely covered tracks, Gregory Porter has undoubtedly proved himself as capable of being a fitting tribute to Nat King Cole. Penultimate track ‘I Wonder Who My Daddy Is’ is a track not of Cole’s origin, yet with Porter’s relationship with his father in mind it’s a poignant choice, with the majority of the lyrics evocative lines such as ‘Is he that man came by sometime, then went away?’.
The album rounds off with the jewel in the crown of Cole’s most loved tracks, ‘The Christmas Song’. An apt choice to bow out with especially heading towards the festive season, it’s reassuring to see the original arrangement has been closely followed. Cole’s arguably most loved piece and Porter’s rendition leaves the listener reflecting on Cole’s music at the end of the record, and agreeing with Porter that ‘he was one of a kind’, and an excellent choice of tribute for Porter’s soulful signature.