Since appearing, seemingly from Easy Listening Jazz Olympus, with 2010’s Water Gregory Porter has marked himself out as one of the country’s favourite singers. That certainly is true of the Radio 2 crowd, his appearance around the yuletide season has almost become ubiquitous. His vocals carry a knowledgeable and benevolence that makes Porter a charming interpreter.
Through his previous four releases he has stuck mostly to original compostions, with a few exceptions on 2013’s Liquid Spirit. Many of his contemporaries have built careers on retreading the standards, drumming out another version of Feeling Good here, a New York, New York there. It’s part of Porter’s charm. But finally he has stepped out into the covers album sphere. Depending on your own point of view the covers album can represent a quick cash in for an idea starved artist or a labour of love by a singer paying homage to a hero.
Fortunately in the case of Porter’s Nat King Cole & Me it very much seems to be the latter.
Even today Nat King Cole’s voice carries an ageless quality, a sound that escapes the boundaries of it’s 1950/60s heyday, surpassing some of his crooner contemporaries. Personally I still hold ‘The Christmas Song’ by Cole to be one of the most beautiful deliveries of a song in any genre over the last one hundred years. His was a voice that could bring calm with one line and absolute melancholy with the next. A formidable pianist to boot – his was a talent with few compare.
So it’s a brave man who decides to do an album based solely around his songs. The good news is that Gregory Porter has crafted an album that does no disservice to the original in either vocally delivery or musical arrangement. The bad new is that’s all there really is to say about it. The arrangements are luscious and expansive, particularly in the earlier tracks. As the album progresses the music becomes more playful when Porter treats us to some of the lesser-well-known-songs on the album. Which is another point. The album kicks with five of arguably Cole’s best known songs, including ‘Mona Lisa’, ‘Smile’ and ‘Nature Boy’, all with little difference to the original save for Porter’s voice. As emotive as Porter’s intonement is the sheer memory of Cole’s silky smooth delivery will always win over meaning that the opening salvo of songs do very little to stand out.
As the album reaches stand out ‘When Love Was King’ however, as we get away from the standards, Porter is allowed to sore as does the music. This particular moment highlighted as the true moment of the album and an inevitable live highlight. Followed up by a smoke tinged version of ‘The Lonely One’ and a charming version of ‘The Christmas Song’ this collection comes into it’s own in the second half.
An album of absolute pleasant pleasures, it’s very much the definition of a “Perfect for Dad this Christmas” album. Fans of Cole and Porter will not be left disappointed. Porter’s voice remains one of modern day easy-listening’s titans but the music is treated too safely, perhaps with too much reverence to ever really be memorable.