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Gregory Porter: Take Me to the Alley

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Whatever the discipline, whenever a star rises too far too fast there’s invariably backlash, a too-big-for-his-britches reset. Gregory Porter, his breakout velocity rivaled only by Cécile McLorin Salvant, is surely due. But judging by Take Me to the Alley, his fourth album as leader, anything but sustained praise is unjustified. As a jazz singer he remains beyond type. You can’t draw a straight line from, say, Billy Eckstine, Jon Hendricks or Mark Murphy to Porter. He is too steeped in soul and R&B, with the influence of Marvin Gaye and Al Green underscored by the gruff majesty of “Rainy Night in Georgia”-era Brook Benton-all essential to his earthy, comforting style.

Alley’s dozen tracks, all but one written or co-written by Porter, stick close to the pattern established with Water, Be Good and the Grammy-winning Liquid Sky: exquisite balance of darkness and light; delicate brushstrokes blended with bold swaths; and that remarkable sense of intimacy, like conversations with a trusted friend. (There’s bandmate consistency, too, including such inner-circle stalwarts as pianist and music director Chip Crawford, bassist Aaron James, drummer Emanuel Harrold and alto saxophonist Yosuke Sato.) While the album’s name suggests step-outside fisticuffs or furtive backdoor dealings, the title track is actually a stunning spiritual. Romantic hardship is a recurring theme, observed from variously bruised perspectives across “Holding On,” “In Fashion” and “Insanity.” And it wouldn’t be a Porter session without thoughtful political postulation, here with “Fan the Flames,” the sizzling “French African Queen” and his astutely embracive “Consequence of Love.”

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