Why not a top-flight jazz trio’s interpretation of the 20th century’s most inflammatory work, what with jazz’s comprising the 20th century’s most inflammatory musical innovations and all? Well, there are no dancers (Le Sacre du printemps was a ballet after all). And no jazz trio, no matter how gifted or well-intentioned, can evoke riotous pagan spirits as convincingly as an orchestra. Still, there’s something to be said for leaving something to the imagination—and for giving the drummer David King room to strut his overcompensatory stuff.
Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” (an instrumental), Van Morrison’s “Moondance” (sung by Michael McDonald), Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” (featuring Eric Clapton’s guitar), and The Beatles’ “Yesterday” (sung by East’s son) are the ringers. But, given East’s bass work on Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” the hyperkinetic “Daft Funk” definitely touches a nerve. Yet it’s the midtempo segues (Sara Bareilles singing “I Can Let Go Now,” Bob James playing piano on “Moodswing”) that provide the unity. “America the Beautiful” provides the conclusion. Ray Charles would be proud.
This album won the 2014 jazz vocal album Grammy for good reason. No matter what emotionally loaded subject matter he essays, this 32-year-old, flat-cap-wearing baritone son of a preacher woman lights fires beneath it. Sometimes they blaze (“The ‘In Crowd’”), sometimes they simmer (“Brown Grass”), but always with the intent both to illuminate and to heat. Has Porter learned lessons from Bill Withers? Yes. And Withers, should he ever decide to add to his recorded legacy, could learn a lesson or two from Porter.
The “Spiritual” in this album-skimming compilation’s title, as opposed to “Christian” or “Gospel,” is deliberate. Despite titles such as “Psalm 26,” “Hymn,” and “Oh We Have a Friend in Jesus,” the liner notes insist that an inoffensive syncretism is the point. Well, OK. Yet, aside from the Buddhist “Awakening,” it’s a sacramentally visceral sensuality deriving from horns-percussion-voice friction that prevails—that and the soon-to-be-late Marion Williams singing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” for six-and-a-half minutes atop Eric Reed’s piano.
Two recent releases by Bob James illustrate the problem with pegging him solely as a “smooth-jazz pioneer.” First, there’s Alone: Kaleidoscope (Red River). Recorded two years ago when James was 72, it finds him unaccompanied and applying his undiminished clarity of touch to six originals and six others by Fats Waller, Sigmund Romberg, Richard Rodgers, Jay Livingston, and Simon & Garfunkel (whose “Scarborough Fair” gets stretched out of its original shape and into various more interesting ones).
Then there’s Rhodes Scholar: Jazz-Funk Classics 1974-1982 (Soul Temple), the title of which refers to James’ one-time preference for the Rhodes electric piano and his contemporaneous preference for making jazz-fusion purses out of blaxploitation-soundtrack ears. That groove and beat-seeking hip-hoppers have long pillaged these tracks for samples is well known. Less well known: that “Angela (Theme from Taxi)” is a “jazz-funk classic” and that “Valley of Shadows” climaxes with “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”