International jazz vocal superstar Gregory Porter returned to San Diego on May 7 for an eagerly-awaited concert at Symphony Hall, drawing a sold-out house that buzzed with anticipation. This was the final concert of the first season of "Jazz at the Jacobs," the marvelous series curated by our own virtuoso trumpeter/scene-maker Gilbert Castellanos -- and it boasted the additional value of Castellanos opening the evening with the redoubtable trio of bassist Marshall Hawkins and piano firebrand Joshua White.
White began Thelonious Monk’s “Green Chimney’s” with appropriately orchestral flourishes, inducing Castellanos into incremental excitement with Baroque filigree before veering off into stuttering repetitions and crashing dissonances.
Marshall Hawkins is often the secret weapon in any ensemble -- and this, happily, was no exception. His unaccompanied soliloquy rippled with long slurs and rubbery glissandi, all directed by the sound of his own voice -- perfectly in sync with his instrumental prowess.
Speaking of prowess, Castellanos’ a cappella introduction to Jobim’s “How Insensitive,” proved to be a masterclass in half-valved smears and bluesy architecture, staking out a space between Art Farmer and Lester Bowie while White churned endless streams of melody and Hawkins turned bow into drumstick.
White navigated the divide between the church and the brothel like a riverboat captain, creating an irresistible wake for Castellanos to deliver his wicked plunger-mute sermon on Hank Mobley’s “Soul Station,” before his own essay that toggled between Pinetop Perkins and Cecil Taylor -- allowing for a show-stopping cadenza from the trumpeter, which had the howling crowd on its feet.
That, I thought, is going to be awfully hard to top.
Some 20 minutes later, the Porter group arrived to waves of tumultuous applause as the big man stepped up to the mic to intone “Painted on Canvas,” from the album "Be Good," straining in a soulful way with his smoky baritone.
“On My Way to Harlem,” sailed on the sleek rimshot backbeat of Emanuel Harrold, supporting an effusive scatting section from Porter, who sounded like a cross between Jon Henricks and Marvin Gaye, even quoting, briefly, from “What’s Going On?”
My highlight moment came on the title track of Porter’s latest record, "Take Me To The Alley," which sounded like a soft melodic caress over a pensive ostinato and a languid tenor saxophone solo from Tivon Pennicott .
Also especially effective was “Hey Laura,” from "Liquid Spirit," where that confessional gospel-ish vibe reminded me of Bill Withers. Pennicott even worked a quote from the 1944 David Raskin movie-theme “Laura,” to keep the mood flowing before stretching out into the altissimo register.
Next up, thick-toned bassist Jahmal Nichols got the call, pumping short declaratives that suddenly morphed into the 1972 Temptations hit, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” which also yielded a dense piano excursion that quoted from Cedar Walton’s “Bolivia,” and Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.”
The best moment, though, came when Porter invited Castellanos back to the stage to explore a yearning, searching rendition of the late Daniel Jackson’s “Wisdom,” which raised the hair on the back of my neck.
All in all, a very successful affair, although the sound in the cavernous hall continues to be problematic. Drums, in particular, get lost in the room, and without the precise detail of a ride cymbal, real acoustic jazz will suffer. Hopefully, this gets worked out for future dates.