Monday 21st October 2024
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In the best possible way, Christmas comes early this year. Presenting, with his customary class, elegance and sophistication, Gregory Porter’s Christmas Wish – a cool yule selection of festive favorites as well as brand new songs written by the man himself.
Backed by his long-time band, produced by repeat collaborator Troy Miller in New York and London, with orchestral contributions recorded at Abbey Road, and featuring a powerhouse guest vocal from GRAMMY-winning singer Samara Joy, the jazzman’s seventh album is his loving tribute to his favorite time of year – and to great songwriters, singers and interpreters including Sammy Cahn, Frank Loesser, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.
“Christmas is hugely important to me,” says Porter. “And hugely important to my family. It's the moment in the year that's reset time. That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot over these last couple of years. We all do it: I'm going to love better this coming year. I'm going to do better this year. I'm going to give more this year.”
That sense of renewal and revival, and also of sharing and caring, is there in Porter’s trio of original songs. Elegant piano ballad “Everything’s Not Lost” is Porter’s persuasive plea to remember those less fortunate than ourselves at the moment when, as he sings, “Christmas and New Year are coming on strong.”
“That's the energy of the song,” he explains. “Christmas is a time where we're just all supposed to just be thinking of Christmas trees and Jelly Rolls. But let's also consider the other things that are going on in the world. I'm always thinking of balance. So I sing: ‘Help me just to pass this test of time, I wish that I was blind, strange thing to wish for, but I just can’t unsee all this misery…’ That has been instilled in me, and it keeps coming up in a lot of my music. At your highest, at your greatest, at your most pleasant time, don't forget about other people who are suffering. This is another one of those moments in my music.”
Powered by Hammond organ, the title track “Christmas Wish,” another of Porter’s deeply affecting originals, has a finger-snapping energy that evokes the joy that his mother spread at Christmas: before she cooked for her family, she made Christmas lunch for those less fortunate in the Porters’ Californian neighborhood.
“My mother would do things with such energy that it would convince you to come along. It was like we were on the march to do something good! You know: ‘Listen here babies, gather your things, let’s get the pots ready, put them in the car...’ There was so much ebullience in her giving, and that’s why the song sounds that way. I was condensing into poetry and melody how she would be moving so quickly that you jumped aboard.”
There are spiritual homages, too, to his brother Lloyd, who succumbed to Covid in 2020.
“Christmas was an enormous part of my life, my childhood. And in adulthood, the biggest thing that my brother and I would get together on was a celebration at Christmas. So I wanted to get him into the story as well because I wanted to have the full representation of different feelings and emotions that come up at Christmas – the bitter and the sweet. Sometimes that's what it is for people, without question. It has been that for me for the last couple of years. And that's OK.”
Across its dozen tracks, Christmas Wish encompasses the saintly and the secular, the funky and the fun, the Great American Songbook and the best of Motown.
It opens with Porter’s spine-tingling take on “Silent Night,” and offers his shimmering, hymnal take on “Little Drummer Boy.” That latter “is one of those ubiquitous Christmas songs that that gets a remake every so often,” he acknowledges. “But the heft of the bottom end of the song, the drone in the weight of the drums, and the lyrics all give me the ability to identify with that story. I was also a poor boy, but do I have something worthy of the king? I appreciate the fairness and equality in that king. It's a dope thought to me.”
“What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?” is a different kind of standard, written in 1947 by Frank Loesser. Porter is joined by Joy, the 23-year-old vocal talent who won Best New Artist at the 2023 GRAMMY Awards.
“This is one of those classic, sweet, by-the-fire holiday songs. In my Christmas record I didn't want to leave out New Year's. For me they go hand-in-hand now, because my wife's culture celebrate New Year's Eve more so than they do the Christmas holiday. And Samara has a voice that, immediately upon hearing, takes you back to a time and a style of singing that just exemplifies grace and the beauty of jazz and the American songbook. The spirit of Ella, Sarah, or Dinah, we now have in this young artist. So asking her to sing was a no-brainer – Miss Joy is fantastic.”
Elsewhere, two titans of soul are given their flowers: Porter honors Stevie Wonder on a cover of his 1967 track “Someday At Christmas,” and he honors Marvin Gaye in the “cool and quirky” “Purple Snowflakes,” which Gaye recorded in 1964.
“‘Someday At Christmas’ is the kind of song that I want to hear from Stevie, that I expect to hear from Stevie: soulful, thoughtful, but it's still Christmas. It has that fantastic balance of the thing that Marvin used to do, too – putting something righteous, soulful and nutritious in something that still has a groove.”
He effortlessly scales a different tower of song on “Christmas Waltz,” penned by Sammy Cahn and a mid-century American classic.
“Frank Sinatra's version in particular has the joy I love about that song. There's the thing about that style and that time of writing, where the joy was automatic within the song. When I was little, I would remember the line ‘this song of mine in three-quarter time’ – what are they talking about?” he recalls with a laugh. “Not understanding music at the time, that always intrigued me. Now I know there are many Christmas songs that are in three-quarter time, and it's just the feeling of Christmas. Also,” he adds, “the ending line is just fantastic: ‘And I hope every single new year’s dream comes true for you, I do, I wish this for you’ – I love a song that leaves the wake of a good feeling.”
That loving care and attention to detail – lyrical, spiritual, emotional – runs throughout and around Christmas Wish like the best kind of festive wrapping. When he was making his song selection, Porter learned of the inspiration behind “Do You Hear What I Hear” – it was the writers’ plea for world peace at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a message that went global when Bing Crosby had a huge hit with the song.
“I read that story as I was doing my choices and it just fortified the song for me being on the record. This again strums the notes of the feeling that I like to put forward – considering the least fortunate. It conjures up several themes. There's the sympathy and empathy, of thinking of the poor, but also royal humility, which is something that I love to deal with in my songs and in my writing. And it's a classic.”
He also divined beautiful meaning in another song with radically different roots: “Christmas Time Is Here” was originally written as an instrumental by jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi for 1965 animation classic A Charlie Brown Christmas.
“Watching that show just felt so good when we were kids. And it was one of my brother's favorite songs. It’s this idea that Christmas time is here, so sit up straight. It's a call to attention for all of the things that we want at Christmas: peace, good tidings, respect, everybody's belly full.
“I just love that descriptive nature inherent in so many Christmas songs,” Porter expands. “Just laying out your wishes and your dreams, and putting into the minds of people all over the world that it's a time for peace, for gathering together, and for expressing love.”
The final bow on Porter’s Christmas gift for everyone is another original. “Heart For Christmas” finds the singer in elegiac mood, recalling the magic of the festive seasons of his earliest years.
“It’s a call to be a child again. Be childlike again. And to believe again. It's a built-in thing into the sentiment of Christmas to be nostalgic. And to remember an earlier time, and to remember those people who were there as well. So ‘give me a heart of Christmas again’ is a wrap-up of my Christmas wish. It's a wrap-up the nostalgia of the songs that you’ve just heard.”
It’s a fitting end to the album, enveloping the listener in the embracing, enlightening glow of a set of songs curated with care, love and festive warmth. With Christmas Wish, Gregory Porter has given us a whole new soundtrack to this most wonderful time of year.
Gregory Porter • Christmas Wish • Release Date: November 3, 2023