The intersection of Kurt Elling and Sammy Davis Jr. may seem an unfathomable junction, but that’s precisely where you’ll find Gregory Porter. On his debut album, consisting largely of original tunes that are as uniformly impressive as his sound, Porter takes the best of Davis—the superior interpretive skills, clarion tone and immaculate diction that were too often overwhelmed by staginess—and marries it to the best of Elling, complete with some solid scatting.
Porter aptly refers to Water as “an album of love and protest,” though love is the clear victor. From the starkly beautiful “Illusion,” a hushed ode to a lost paramour; and rapturous “Pretty,” reminiscent of “A Taste of Honey”; to the percolated joy of “Magic Cup,” Porter knows how to get to the heart of the matter. He is also a fine balladeer, as demonstrated on pristine, minimalist readings of “Skylark” and “But Beautiful.”
Porter the protester surfaces on “1960 What?,” a resonant study in barely contained rage that recalls John Lee Hooker’s “Motor City Is Burning” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Black Day in July” and “Lonely One,” the harrowingly tender post-mortem of an abusive relationship. Equally insightful is Porter’s transformation of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s featherlight “Feeling Good” into three minutes of soul-deep testifying worthy of “Ol’ Man River.”