The Blue Note
Monday, July 25
Better than: Most hackneyed Amy Winehouse tributes people are going to put together over the next couple of days.
The publicist wanted to make it clear that despite a tribute to Amy Winehouse being teased on The Blue Note’s website, Gregory Porter would probably not be performing any of Winehouse’s material during his set last night. The Grammy-nominated jazz singer had been called in at the last minute to replace Winehouse’s father, Mitch, a crooner in his own right whose performance was cancelled in the wake of his daughter’s death. Porter was his replacement.
The tribute came during the third song of Porter’s second set. “I am here tonight in place of Mitch Winehouse, whose daughter passed away,” Porter told the audience. “So I feel it’s fitting to give a tribute to a very fine singer who straddled jazz and soul.”
More tributes should be this honest. Porter wasn’t going to graft a song from Winehouse’s Back To Black or even her much jazzier debut, Frank, on which she covered “There Is No Greater Love” and “Moody’s Mood For Love,” into his set. He didn’t have to; he instead paid homage to the deceased singer with a heart-wrenching ballad of his own, “The Way You Want To Live.” When he sang, “I need someone just to be there, just to be square with me/ Catch me when I fall/ I’ve been through it all/ Just be there for me,” there was a palpable weight of sorrow in the room.
There lies in Porter a certain star quality that was on full display at the Blue Note. He’s a hulking figure, which denotes his previous time as an outside linebacker on scholarship at San Diego State University. He had the throwback charm reminiscent of Tony Bennett, telling stories between songs and not hesitating to comment on how good the calamari on a table in front of him smelled. When it came time to sing, Porter proved he was more than just showmanship with a gruff tenor in the tradition of Joe Williams.
His set list was ambitious, with covers of Wayne Shorter’s barnburner “Black Nile” and a rendition of John Coltrane’s “Equinox” to which he wrote his own lyrics. The former was one of several songs taken from his debut, Water; the latter—though still in need of more rehearsal—is part of a growing catalogue he has yet to release. The breezy waltz “Be Good” has become a staple at Porter shows and can’t get to record fast enough, and when he finally does get around to recording “The Way You Want To Live,” there will be tears.
Porter may have performed only one song in tribute to Winehouse, but considering his entire set was filled with songs the late singer could have sunk her teeth into, the night in full was a tribute of sorts. If Porter continues to perform like he did at the Blue Note, he will prove, much like Winehouse once did, that jazz singers can be stars too.
Critical bias: I never planned on seeing Mitch Winehouse.
Overheard: “I told you he was supposed to perform here tonight.”—An audience member, pointing to a picture of Mitch Winehouse in the Blue Note’s July 2011 program.
Random notebook dump: Porter needs his version of a Mark Ronson, a musical collaborator to boost his profile and turn him into a star; on his own he’s almost too nice and too humble. There has to be an alternative to all these male vocalists singing through their nose and throat. Porter sings from the diaphragm, the gut. Is there no country for such a singer?
Way To Harlem
The Way You Want To Live