Stephanie Porter photo courtesy of artist
By Jean Mishler
Stephanie Porter’s release party for her new album Radio Theatre was a taste of everything you’d want to see and hear from a jazz singer. Treating Tula’s like her own house, she welcomed us to her art like a great hostess to the feast. And what a spread it was. With a full moon outside and heat radiating up from the pavement of a record-breaking Seattle summer, July 31 saw a sold-out crowd gathered for the awaited album.
About halfway through her first set, she joked, “If I mess up, I can sparkle my dress and hypnotize you all tonight.” And sparkle and hypnotize she did. From her black velvet four-inch heels and silver sequin-studded dress that graciously clung to her curves, to her new blond tresses (a brunette for her last album, she joked that for her next one, she’d be a redhead), she was a shining vision. Opening with a smooth rendition of Frank Foster’s “Shiny Stockings,” Porter lyrically reinforced the entrancing display and plunged us into her album.
Throughout the evening, Porter’s fans from over the years and newcomers to her sound were treated to her soulful tone, silky and effortless delivery, pitch-perfect sailing and gliding around every phrase with never a wrong turn. Her second song was a husky rendition of Barbra Streisand’s cover “Lover, Come Back to Me” by Romberg and Hammerstein.
For the party, Porter joined forces with her usual skillful band and other guests. She was backed by Steve Yusen’s energetic drum work and Dan O’Brien’s bass playing, so creamy you could pour it in your coffee. Not only did we get to hear her go-to pianist, Darin Clendenin, supporting her with superb sensitivity and competence, but she brought up others whom she’s worked with over the years. Zyah Ahmonuel, a sort of Thelonious embodiment who seemed to operate a musical stream of consciousness as if every note was his last perfect thought, joined her for several songs, including one oft-played on KPLU, “How Deep Is the Ocean.” Next up, one of the arrangers for her album, Marius “Butch” Nordal, commanded the piano looking like everyone’s favorite college professor and sounding like he was inspired by all the jazz saints who have gone before him. Then Craig Hoyer, another arranger for her album, ponytail swinging, tore into the piano with an exuberance that would have brought those same saints back to listen, to capture just a little more joy. It was a unique moment to see all that talent, seated at the same back table, taking turns for their chance to spread their music, each a differently beautiful carpet, underneath Porter’s feet.
One of the highlights off the album was the world music-influenced “Around the World.” Featuring accomplished percussionist Dan Adams, it inspired loud cheers from the audience, as her bossa nova, “No More Blues,” did too. “Right On Time,” a gospel blues, was another crowd pleaser, receiving a huge ovation. Not to go unmentioned was tenor sax and flute player Mike West, whose colorings on “Daydreams” were especially lovely.
Early on in the concert, Porter stated that she was a “lazy singer.” Well if she’s lazy, the bar for “non-lazy” must be awfully high. But maybe her observation is the kind made when a gift is so much of who a person is that they are unimpressed with themselves.
Porter says that even though this album is her first foray into writing music, she always had, and continues to have, constant melodies in her head. As a toddler, she says, “Before I spoke, I would sing.” She would call her parents to pick her up out of bed by singing a little tune, “la la loo loo.”
Singing was so much a part of her, but coming from an extended family of successful instrumentalists, no one encouraged her to pursue it. Expected to become a concert pianist, she was sent to piano lessons at a young age – but she admits it wasn’t her instrument in the way that her voice is. So, her Aunt Lucy, a successful working pianist, would play and Porter would sing along, eventually learning many standards. She listened to all the great singers, but was especially influenced by a Northwest singer and activist, Pat Suzuki, who cut a few albums which Porter rates up there with Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.
Inspired by other writers and deeply in love with her city, the Seattle native (she went to Garfield) expands on the artistic life and community here: “There’s so much creativity in his town.”
She adds that, with all these creative people and the potential for collaboration, “There’s no reason we can’t have our own little Greenwich Village.”
Now that she’s writing, she laughs that the writing bug has bit her, and her fans can expect her to keep writing. When asked about where she sees her career going, she points back to her role model, her Aunt Lucy. A passionate pianist, classically trained and addicted to jazz, at one point the piano in Lucy’s house had to be relegated to the stairwell and sat there, propped crookedly. Never deterred, she practiced it at a tilt, defying all those piano teachers’ constant admonitions to perfect posture. Lucy played out all the years of her life, carting her own gear and pulling the piano out of her trunk up to a few months before she passed at age 86.
Porter says that music will always be in her, and she’ll follow in her aunt’s footsteps and in the footsteps of so many other musicians. She says, “They didn’t retire…like Ella and Sarah, they kept singing.”
She adds, “You hope that life will allow you to have those opportunities.”
And from a listener’s standpoint, we do too, Stephanie. We do too.
Radio Theatre is available now on iTunes and CDBaby. More info at www.stephanieporter.com.