Oftentimes, a major venue like the Hollywood Bowl will add enticement to a major artist booking by having that artist not only perform songs from his or her catalog, but pay homage to a legendary figure from the past. This happens a lot in jazz, where greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Sinatra and even Quincy Jones are honored by re-imaginings of their most notable material by a contemporary voice.
Gregory Porter: Nat King Cole & Me, drawing on material that the popular, critically acclaimed soul-jazz singer recorded on his 2017 collection of that name, was more than simply a heartfelt, beautifully orchestrated show featuring one of contemporary jazz’s great vocalists respectfully showcasing a legend’s timeless catalog. In rendering Cole’s music with such detail, depth and wistful, passionate perfection, Porter was sharing his autobiography, inviting the audience back into his childhood where Cole via his recordings became like a surrogate dad in a home without one.
For multiple generations, including the one Porter was born into some years after Cole’s passing, Natalie’s dad was that fatherly figure who could urge someone down and out (as Porter felt at times) to “Pick Yourself Up” and start all over again just as easily he could croon about “L-O-V-E” and ponder the inner psyche of the “Mona Lisa.” This concert, and the new album, are extensions of what amounts to a career long celebration of Cole’s life and music for Porter. In 2004, long before he launched a recording career fueled by his soul-stirring baritone, lush balladry and easy swinging sense of storytelling, the singer dramatized his deep appreciation for Cole in a semi-autographical musical, also called “Nat King Cole & Me,” which he performed for eight weeks in Colorado.
Porter’s been living and breathing this music and Cole’s artistry even as he has been developing his own over the years. As revealing as his performances were, his anecdotes were sometimes just as poignant a part of the narrative. He recalled a moment during his childhood where he brought a tape of himself singing to his mom at age six, and she said, “Boy you sound like Nat King Cole. Of course, the boy was curious and everything blossomed from there. Years later, he recounted the thrill of meeting Natalie in person.
Whether they had heard his new album or not, everyone came to the show knowing that Porter – fronting the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, conducted by Vince Mendoza, who created the album’s arrangements – would deliver the magic on familiar classics like the aforementioned “Mona Lisa,” “But Beautiful,” “Nature Boy,” “Sweet Lorraine,” “Quizas Quizas Quizas” (sung in Spanish) and the ever-charming “Smile.” Yet there were a few fresh surprises (though they were recorded on the album) which proved ideal showcases for Porter’s keen storytelling abilities – most impressively, the narrative, multi-tempo drama “Miss Otis Regrets” and the lively, swinging “Ballerina Dance.” The most heartbreaking moment was Porter’s rendition of a song Nat’s brother Freddy Cole sang, “I Wonder Who My Daddy Is,” which was the emotional centerpiece of the set. And though it would have been splendid to hear more originals, Porter’s towering rendition of “When Love Was King” and his sweetly optimistic “Hey Laura” were delightful and thematically appropriate choices.
In a cool bit of programming innovation, the Bowl booked not another singer as an opening act, but legendary tap dancer Savion Glover, who kept his wild foot percussion in steady swells, ebbs and flows as a dynamic trio swung alternately hard and fast and chill and cool behind him. In one lengthy 40 minute piece which concluded with strains from “My Favorite Thiings,” Glover did crowd rousing foot-instrument duets with pianist Chip Crawford, bassist Jahmal Nichols and drummer Emmanuel Harrold. He also brought a small ensemble (one male, two female) to join in a whimsical “tap-off.” At times, you could see the sweat pouring from Glover’s face onto the special platform – testament to his continuous, almost superhuman leg and footwork. This was a lovely, unexpected treat which brought an extra level of joy and creativity to the evening.