RALEIGH, NC – It was a vibe, a wonderful pre-summer summer evening where the heat just disappeared. The bands did it with an obvious all-powerful love on May 23 in Raleigh, NC. Jazz vocalist Gregory Porter and special guests The Baylor Project took us to church. They changed NCMA‘s Joseph M. Bryan, Jr., Theater in the Museum Park into a temple of enjoyable, awe-inspiring, soul-stirring composition after composition. All jazz.

singer in red dress looking at drummer

Jean Baylor and Marcus Baylor of the Baylor Project at NCMA. Photo Credit: Darrell Stover

Vocalist Jean Baylor dressed in her super-stylish tangerine orange ensemble, and drummer Marcus Baylor, in his fine feathered fedora, grabbed the audience from the get-go with an extensive call and response. The gathered were up to the challenge with a harmonious response that flowed out over the park. We became a singing and snapping collective – the choir and congregation all bounced and cooled by their beat and swing. The potential rain never came, as this was too blessed an evening.

The Baylor Project, led by the ever playful and loving couple, graced the gathered with songs from their three recordings – The Journey (2017), Generations (2021), and The Evening Live at Apparatus (2022). Songs included “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” “Tenderly,” “Our Love is Here to Stay” by George and Ira Gershwin, “Tell Me a Story” by Herbie Hancock, and “Only Believe.” Jean’s scats and the cats’ solos scaled to high heaven and down into deep, deep blues spaces. The band, excitingly precise and conjoined at the heart, was a singular intellect – intense. I’m talking about Terry Brewer on piano, Yasushi Nakamura on bass, Freddie Hendrix on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Keith Loftis on tenor and soprano sax.

singer in red dress with horn players

Jean Baylor with horn section of the Baylor Project at NCMA. Photo credit: Darrell Stover

Theirs was a heavy hit. Jean Baylor delivered her pure and sure voice in conversation with Marcus Baylor’s splash of sticks, mallets, and brushes of such a unique and driven style. Some in the audience may have been previously aware of them through their popular recording and video “We Swing “The Cypher”” that featured vocalists Jazzmeia Horn and Dianne Reeves. But all there will not soon forget and will long for the return of this jazz experience to the Triangle. And why not? They were reminiscent of that other married couple of hard bop, vocalist Abbey Lincoln and drummer Max Roach, or Doug and Jean Carn of soul jazz fame, and now this 7X Grammy-nominated force is scorching the nation.

But wait! That was just the guest performers to the sermon.

singer on stage

Gregory Porter at NCMA. Photo credit: Darrell Stover

All rise, for the bishop has arrived with something for our thirst. Gregory Porter is rolling thunder tempered by honesty. He’s a creative intellectual who gives us soul, history, and good gospel –messages abound in his music. He has released many hit albums – Water (2011), Be Good (2012), Liquid Spirit (2013), Take Me to the Alley (2016), Nat King Cole and Me (2019), All Rise (2020), and Still Rising (2021). He is a multi-Grammy nominee with two Grammys for jazz vocal album.

He wasted no time getting the congregation to groove with him as he opened with “Painted on Canvas,” with its celebration of artistry, children, and the child in us. The sax and piano solos urged him to preach on. So did the gathered with prolonged applause.

Next, he took us to that amen corner on the planet – Harlem. A transposition took place before our eyes through our ears. We found ourselves strolling down a more and more familiar cityscape where Black culture once covered everything. We felt in the song “On My Way to Harlem” what it’s like to live in a jazz player’s household, a jazz village, although now a place facing change. Ellington, Langston Hughes, and Marvin Gaye are gone. But, Gregory Porter sang them back to life, as well as the soloist Chip Crawford with a little razzle dazzle on piano, followed by Carlos “Scooter” Brown on sax and Cory Baker on organ, while drummer Emanuel Harrold got shout outs from the crowd. Beautiful synchronicity ensued.

Porter delivered songs that wrapped around our souls with a warmth that replenished our humanity. His stories as prelude set us up just right for “If Love is Overrated,” a song that paired well with the naivety in his story he told about his first job as a teenager. The audience engaged the storyteller like children at bedtime wanting another and another, or like the church wanting more of that good gospel.

piano player and singer

Chip Crawford, keyboards and Gregory Porter at NCMA. Photo credit: Darrell Stover

Then right on time, Raleigh’s own and Durham’s embraced Chip Crawford set it up and off on piano as Porter called on the people in the pews to “clap your hands to the rhythm of your hearts” and to “hummmmmmmmm” all together to the tempo of one of his favorite hits, “Liquid Spirit.” There was a real authentic symbiosis that had been maintained this evening through consistent messages – a unity of understanding, mind, body, and soul. Say “hummmmmmmmmmm.”

What happened next was just amazing musicianship, showmanship, arrangement, and genius!

In a powerful medley, Jahmal Nichols carried out a bass run of “Play that Funky Music,” kicking into “Inner City Blues,” over to “I Got Sunshine,” then Stevie Wonder’s “Hotter Than July,” and finally the Temptations’ “Poppa Was a Rolling Stone,” the major message.

Some mean blues piano by Chip (as so many know him) gave way to Porter’s anthem of resistance, “Musical Genocide,” which reflects a commitment to the blues as gospel, the long evolution of Black music as medicine stories for those times, these times, and the generations to come. It is a powerful statement he delivers with conviction in which Bob Marley’s “War” is embedded as a clear example of this tradition driven home with drummer Harris jammin’. Porter extolled us to sing together, “I Do Not Agree” to commit ourselves to this storytelling and the belief in the important messages in song. Amen brother, amen.

“There Will Be No Love That’s Dying Here,” delivered with an uplifting compassion, closed out the evening and a phenomenal sermon. Refreshed and quenched, we are still going to want some more of Gregory Porter and this pairing with The Baylor Project back here soon.

We have Moses T. Alexander Greene, Director of Film and Performing Arts for NCMA, to thank for this great programming and establishing the theme of JOY for this summer of jazz. His keen insights into the importance of the spiritual and the messages in music through artists that bear witness to this tradition should be cheered and cherished. There is more to come this summer at NCMA! Check out the following line up:

June 27: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis
July 11: Boney James with special guests Maysa and Kenny Lattimore
July 18: El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico with special guest Luciana Souza