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Nailah Porter ConJazzNess Review

Album. Released 2011.  

BBC Review

The fine-voiced newcomer’s debut is assured, yet lacking in substance.

Daniel Spicer 2011

The Hollywood-style back-story that accompanies vocalist Nailah Porter’s debut album is that, in order to concentrate on her music, she walked away from a successful career tackling injustices as a lawyer and lobbyist in Washington DC. Perhaps that explains the advice she offers, in the track Hands, to stop worrying about the troubles in the world, "put it in God’s hands and pray for peace". Maybe she’d just had enough of trying to make a difference.

In fact, that slightly fuzzy yet heartfelt spiritual urge permeates the whole of this debut album. The title itself (pronounced "consciousness") indicates an attempt to borrow some of the emotional sincerity of jazz and soul in the service of Porter’s smooth ditties. Evidently, she takes herself pretty seriously – even if her lyrics (dealing with hazy abstracts such as ‘negativity’ and ‘spirit’) aren’t quite as profound as she’d like. In the same way, the music here is superficially assured, yet somehow lacking in substance or originality. Breathe is furrow-browed folk-jazz with acoustic guitar and flute, akin to (but nowhere near as moving as) Terry Callier’s What Color Is Love; while Lillies & Birds seems to be reaching for an elemental blues wisdom in the vein of Nina Simone but really only musters an ersatz pop simulacrum. Elsewhere, pianist Deron Johnson’s arrangements reach for a deeper jazz vibe, but the talented session musicians are obviously very tightly reined in. The genuinely searching, yet all too brief, soprano saxophone solo on He Speaks functions much as a guitar solo – or indeed a rap – would in any pop tune: a token instrumental moment filling a gap between verses.

Which isn’t to say Porter can’t sing. Clearly, she has listened to and absorbed the techniques of contemporary chanteuses such as Cassandra Wilson and Norah Jones and, like the latter, her brand of undemanding pop-jazz is surely destined to be the soundtrack to innumerable coffee-house dates for years to come. One might even go so far as to suggest her voice is flawless – in a way that Billie Holiday could never have managed. Yet it’s Holiday, not Porter, whose work will still be cherished 100 years from now.

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