Just as it started to get officially chilly and prematurely snowy around these parts, a wonderful new album arrived from local jazz singer Jennifer Porter, and it’s like a warm summer breeze for your ears. “These Years” is Porter’s seventh album in a recording career that dates back two decades, beginning with 1998’s “Hyacinth Boy Blue.”
Before I go any further, let me say that, although I refer to Porter as a jazz singer, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole her as simply that because, as she wrote on her website, “These Years” is heavily influenced by soul, blues and roots music.
What’s more, she’s not just a singer. Porter is also an actress and screenwriter, and she and Dana Packard co-founded The Originals Theatre Company in 1988 and Honey Tree Films a decade later in 1998.
Porter has sung with classical and jazz orchestras, including the legendary Glenn Miller Orchestra, and her own quintet. Her 2015 album “Easy Living” was a nominee for a best independent music award in the jazz-with-vocals category and also received national radio airplay. And if that’s not enough, Porter is a wildly talented blues pianist.
Porter grew up listening to Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, The Beach Boys, The Beatles and big band music. Some of her musical influences include Sam Cooke, John Hiatt, Billie Holiday, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and The Neville Brothers. She first started to play the piano when she was 4 years old and the back story is wonderful.
“The first person I saw play the piano live was a woman named Maxine, who was playing at one of my grandparents’ notorious cocktail parties in Belfast,” she said. “She was playing boogie-woogie and blues, and I was fascinated.” Porter was enthralled how an inanimate object could make sure a wondrous sound. “I sat down the next day and began to pick out, by ear, what she had done the night before.” After four more years of playing by ear, Porter’s parents found her a teacher.
Porter moved no less than five times before she was 10 years old, but most of her family is from Belfast. She graduated from Windham High School and currently lives in Buxton.
As for “These Years,” the album is a collaboration with producer Jay Newland (Norah Jones, Richie Havens) whose mantle holds a dozen Grammy Awards. Porter told me that Newland pulled together an all-star band for “These Years.” “They were amazing musicians to work with.” Newland also helped to shape the album thematically. “He saw it as an album about love. He is definitely a master at what he does,” added Porter.
The album features 10 tracks with an even split of originals and covers of songs by the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Bobby Sharp. It also features a crackerjack band that includes special guests Grammy-nominee accordionist C.J. Chenier and Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Charlie McCoy on harmonica and vibes. Porter explained that the covers are all songs that she loves and has played live. “I like taking ‘men’s’ songs and reinterpreting their intent from a female perspective. I made rough recordings, just sitting and singing at my piano, of songs that I am partial to and sent them to Jay Newland who gave a thumbs up or down.” It was Newland who suggested she tackle a Tom Waits tune so Porter found the lesser-known “In Between Love.” “These Years” was mixed and engineered by Lawrence Manchester, who is currently the producer and lead music mixer on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.” It was mastered by Portland’s Adam Ayan of Gateway Mastering. Ayan has mastered 42 Grammy Award-winning recordings, and that number continues to rise.
Here’s “Road to Redemption”
“These Years” opens on a full-bodied note with the first sound being Charlie McCoy’s harmonica on Porter’s take on Morrison’s “Crazy Love.” Porter’s vocals on this, and on every track on “These Years,” are warm and full while also soothing and pulled me in from the get-go. Porter is a real pro, and there’s a confidence in her singing that is bright. I could tell immediately that the journey the album would take me on would be a gratifying one.
“Crazy Love” gave way to the album’s first original, “Road to Redemption.” “Now I’m lost on the road to redemption/Broke down on the road to redemption,” sings Porter with gorgeous backing vocals from Sharon and Dennis Collins. The song is a hopeful meditation on dusting yourself off and giving yourself a fresh start. Porter said that it and three other originals on “These Years” were written during a particularly prolific week in 2017. “They just fell onto the page and out of my fingers. I feel songs build up in me for a while, that’s generally how the songwriting process goes for me.” She added that sometimes coming up with just the right lyrics can be agony.
Diving a few more tracks into “These Years,” mad props must also be given to Porter for her take on the Jagger/Richards classic “Beast of Burden.” It’s miles away from the original, and she and her band have slowed it down just enough to give it a whole new vibe. “These Years” closes out with the original “For You,” a sweet-as-Maine-maple-syrup love song that has tinges of gospel to it and brings the album in for a light and airy, yet soulful, landing.
The album release show for “These Years” is on Dec. 7. at the Saco River Theatre, and Porter will have copies for sale there that I’m going to go out on a limb and say she’ll be happy to sign for you. You’ll also be able to find it at jennifernicholeporter.com, and all of the usual online spots.
Porter said that two of the musicians who played on the album will be flying in from New York City and Los Angeles for the show: John Deley (Dido) on keyboards and Adam Levy (Tracy Chapman, Norah Jones) on guitar. The bassist on the album, Ira Coleman (Sting, Herbie Hancock), who has been called away on tour, will be replaced by Damon Banks (George Benson, the Neville Brothers). Porter will be at the piano with Dana Packard on drums, Matt Langley on saxophone and, on backing vocals, Porter’s sister, Alicia Miller, and her friends from music school, Wendi Sweet-McPike, and Emily MacKinnon.
Porter’s favorite thing about a live show is the energy of it, she said. “I love making people happy, and I love communicating musically with my fellow musicians. There’s nothing like singing a certain note, or choosing a certain note in a chord, and having the other people you are playing with understand what you are saying to them and having them answer you back. That is one of the happiest things I can think of.”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 7
WHERE: Saco River Theatre, 29 Salmon Falls Road, Bar Mills
HOW MUCH: $30, $25 seniors and students
TICKETS & INFO: sacorivertheatre.org