Gregory Porter stood deep in thought, one hand on his hip and the other stroking his beard. Piano chords and saxophone lines floated aimlessly behind him. He described the beginning of his musical career, when, as a young child, he sang for audiences of homeless people in the alley behind his Bakersfield, California home. Porter, who now has won two Grammy awards and performed for various European royalty, has certainly come a long way from these humble beginnings. But, as he explained to the audience, he still finds more validation from the downtrodden neighbors of his youth than any royal audience.
How fitting for Millennium Park’s celebration of Juneteenth, a holiday that commemorates the abolition of slavery. As articulated by the evening’s MC and “disco poet” Kahari B., Juneteenth celebrates not only Abraham Lincoln but the slaves, Union soldiers and everyday people who shed blood for the cause of freedom. Like Porter, Kahari B. used the occasion to champion the forgotten, the unlucky, the overlooked.
Millennium Park Music Series Opens Celebration with Stunning Performance from Cellist Tomeka Reid
The evening’s overcast sky and cool temperature proved a suitable backdrop for jazz cellist Tomeka Reid’s subtle, somber, and intricate compositions. The singular sound of the Tomeka Reid Quartet is partly due to the group’s unusual instrumentation: Reid plays the cello and is joined by Mary Halverson on guitar, Jason Roebke on bass, and Tomas Fujiwara on drums. Reid’s cello lends the music a delicacy and earthiness that is often absent in jazz. Paired with Halverson’s guitar – warped at times by distortion and a variety of petals – their sound is like little else in jazz.
The group’s set drew from a variety of styles, both in and outside of jazz. While rarely engaging in straight-ahead swing grooves – their first song, “Etoile,” being a notable exception – the quartet’s unshakable sense of cool, complex arrangements, and penchant for spacy experimentation called to mind groups like the George Russell Sextet and Modern Jazz Quartet. During moments where Reid’s cello drifted over rock drums and picked guitar chords, however, the group sounded more like 1990s indie rock than 1960s cool jazz. This eclectic aesthetic was often distilled in single compositions, like “August 6th,” where a drum-cello duet morphed into a pulsating Latin groove and then exploded in a burst of collective improvisation.
Gregory Porter Moves Concertgoers with Rousing Set of Jazz and Soul
By the end of Tomeka Reid’s performance, the sky had cleared, the sun began to set, and a pinkish glow settled over the Pavilion. Gregory Porter emerged in a tightly tailored three-piece suit and his signature hat, a Kangol cap with a balaclava that leaves only his face exposed. Backed by tenor saxophone, piano, drums, and bass, Porter launched into “Holding On,” a lovely, jazz-inflected pop song about maintaining hope during times of bitterness. “Holding On” was remixed in a 2015 hit from the British house group Disclosure, which, though it may seem strange, makes sense given Porter’s ability to infuse jazz with pop melodies and lyricism.
Porter’s voice is rich, distinctive, and clear as a bell. He stood still, eyes closed, flexing one hand over his stomach as he shot from a booming baritone to a crystalline falsetto in the same measure. He was remarkably restrained for someone of such talent, dispensing his dazzling vocal runs only at a song’s climax, eliciting euphoric shouts of “yes sir!” and “come on now!” from the audience.
While neither of their performances explicitly referenced the holiday, the contrasting sounds of Gregory Porter and Tomeka Reid capture the contradictions and complexities of Juneteenth itself. Where Porter’s compositions communicate the feelings of hope that inspired its first celebration, Reid’s elegiac melodies capture the bitter reality and broken promises that followed emancipation – and the momentous work that remains to realize its promise.
The Millennium Park Music Series is sponsored by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE). For more information, visit the DCASE website here.