Gregory Porter is never seen performing without his signature flat cap, and on Wednesday night the Grammy-winning jazz vocalist opened a concert by tipping it to some of the earlier artists who'd inspired him.
Onstage at downtown's Theatre at Ace Hotel, Porter sang his song "Musical Genocide," about his determination to help keep certain old-fashioned styles alive: the "blues song [that tells] the world what's wrong," the "gospel singer giving those messages of love," the "soul man with your heart in the palm of his hand."
Eventually, he began putting names to those archetypes. "What would Stevie Wonder say?" he crooned, his voice commanding yet velvety. "What would Luther Vandross say? What would Sammy Davis Jr. say?"
Finally, he asked the same question about Nat King Cole, then answered it by gently steering "Musical Genocide" into a rendition of "Nature Boy," the eerie ballad that Cole made famous in the late 1940s.
As seamless as it was clever, the extended sequence — into which Porter also dropped a few lines from Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" — clearly laid out the singer's heroes even as it suggested that he's working his way toward a place among them.
It also reminded folks in the crowd that Porter just released a new album. On "Nat King Cole & Me," this Southern California native pays loving tribute to the pop and jazz great whose music he said provided fatherly guidance at a time in his life when his own father wasn't around to give it.
With lush orchestral arrangements by Vince Mendoza, the record is a good deal more elaborate than Porter's previous projects, which featured an earthy small-combo sound.
One assumes he needs to sell quite a few copies of the thing before his label, Blue Note, recoups its costs. Yet that hardly seemed like Porter's aspiration at the Ace, where a four-piece band backed him in a set that included only a few tunes associated with Cole.
Indeed, Porter seemed almost embarrassed by the task of plugging the album: Introducing his take on "Smile," he insisted he was singing the number in the hope that it would bring some comfort to a friend in the audience who'd recently lost her partner.
And who would've predicted that he'd forgo "The Christmas Song" in early December?
Perhaps Porter had planned to do more of the buttoned-up Cole material. But the crowd's hearty response to the rowdier "Musical Genocide," which also name-checked Bill Withers, appeared to catch him off-guard.
"Y'all making it feel like a 3 o'clock service," he said with a laugh, going on to imagine that his piano player was about to be served a plate of fatback and collard greens.
Porter met that convivial vibe — and succeeded in dispensing a kind of churchy uplift — with strutting performances of originals like "On My Way to Harlem" and "Don't Lose Your Steam," both about the importance of finding one's purpose; near the end of the show he invoked another soul veteran by mashing up his "Free" with Sly & the Family Stone's "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)."
But the highlight was the gorgeous title track from his 2016 album, "Take Me to the Alley," which he introduced with a tender reminiscence of being raised "at 36th and Normandie" in Los Angeles by a mother who couldn't resist helping people in need.
When Porter was older she moved him and his siblings to Bakersfield, where she opened a storefront chapel, and here "Take Me to the Alley" had the unhurried air of private worship — a hymn not to Cole, or any of Porter's musical idols, but to the woman who first set him on his path.