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Review: Rising jazz vocalist Gregory Porter digs deep for sold-out show at Ferst Center

Gregory Porter

Looking at Gregory Porter as a pure jazz singer is somewhat disingenuous.

When Porter — a baritone with a deep, resonant voice and a range that sounds full, clear and comfortable in all registers — starts to sing, it sounds like anachronistic R&B, a vintage style hardly present in today’s musical landscape. But it’s also the blues; there’s a dirty, jump-up-and-shout grain to his voice that grows even more powerful the softer he sings. So to call Porter one of the best emerging jazz artists of the decade (he’s currently in my “top five jazz singers” category) is misleading, because he’s so much more than a jazz vocalist.

A packed audience of supporters of WCLK, Clark Atlanta University’s jazz radio station, knew what they were getting into Saturday with Porter’s group, jumping up for riotous ovations almost immediately. Porter and his band — propped up by the thrilling, if somewhat repetitive, alto saxophonist Yosuke Sato — set the audience at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts into a frenzy after each tune. Fresh off a performance on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” on Friday, Porter was welcomed by a sellout crowd.

Most of the audience trickled in during the fantastic opening set by Atlanta trumpeter Melvin Jones and his quintet. Playing with Louis Heriveaux on piano, drummer Marlon Patton, bassist Mark Miller and Mace Hibbard on tenor saxophone, Jones presented a well-balanced program that mixed funk, bebop and a bit of world music into the set.

As soloists, these local players, who tour all over the country, possess some of the best chops in Atlanta. Jones burst out of the gate on “Funkytown Shuffle,” blending long runs of breakneck 16th notes with short, in-the-groove phrases. The trumpeter plays to the music, not simply showing off his improvisational skills but serving the mood of each tune. Hibbard, on tenor, has an earthy, natural sound.

Later in the set, Jones dug out his arrangement of the spiritual “Amazing Grace,” which is propelled by a percussive piano figure after a Cubist solo-piano introduction. The piano also worked to ground the floating, stretched-out melody, played delicately by Jones on flugelhorn and by Hibbard’s tenor.

By the end of the opening set, the amplification setup had become an issue. Thinking back to previous Ferst Center jazz performances, I can remember tin-like sound bouncing off the walls. While the sound didn’t completely muddy Saturday’s concert, some instruments were at times rendered a bit shrill. Georgia Tech is in the fund-raising stages for a remodeling of the Ferst, and while the initial press release and subsequent reports haven’t directly mentioned sound design, let’s hope that a look into the room’s acoustics is in the cards.

During Porter’s set, his deep voice could sound tinny and full of treble, while Sato’s wailing sax smears and slurs were sometimes hard to digest. Despite the sound, Porter — dapperly dressed in a white suit jacket, gray vest, jeans and his signature hat — gave an engaging and thorough look at his oeuvre, sticking mostly to his recent Blue Note release, “Liquid Spirit,” and 2012’s “Be Good.”

A tender reading of the ballad “Be Good (Lion’s Song),” along with an achingly beautiful version of “Wolfcry,” proved to be among the highlights of a set that skewed toward medium- and uptempo, groove-based numbers.