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What kind of man is Gregory Porter? As it happens, he's already told us himself. "I'm a real good man," he sang in "Real Good Hands," one of a handful of sturdily built original songs from his 2012 album, Be Good. He was extending a suitor's reassurance there, addressing a future father-in-law. But we were invited to listen in and draw our own conclusions.
Nat King Cole & Me, Porter's glittery new album, is a more refined — and more emotionally fraught — experience. A loving tribute recorded with the London Studio Orchestra, in splendiferous arrangements by Vince Mendoza, it shares a title with the semiautobiographical musical that gave Porter his breakout success in 2004. And as with that theatrical piece, this album isn't shy about the notion that Nat King Cole, a peerless midcentury steward of American song, somehow stood in for the man that was missing from Porter's early childhood.
"My father wasn't raising me," he told NPR's All Things Considered in 2013, "and I was listening to these words: 'Pick yourself up. Dust yourself off. Start all over again. You'll be a man someday.' Nat King Cole's lyrics were speaking to me, almost like fatherly advice, when I was listening to him alongside the console stereo player."
That's a lot of responsibility for any record player to bear, and at times it also lands as a burden on this record. Porter gives us precise, persuasive and courtly renditions of the songs you'd most expect to see on an essential Cole playlist. (Several of the most familiar — "Mona Lisa," "Smile," "Nature Boy" — arrive up front, and "The Christmas Song" is the closer.) He also sings a new version of his own parable "When Love Was King," which doesn't feel out of place.
Since he began releasing albums in 2010, Porter has put himself forward as a singer-songwriter more than a songbook interpreter. ("But Beautiful," one of the few standards on his debut album, resurfaces in the deluxe edition of this one.) He has the careful diction and clear projection of his hero, but also a voice that suits his big frame, resonant and boomy.
What you might miss, as a Gregory Porter fan, are the moments when that voice defies gravity, billowing skyward like a kite. When he has the chance, as on a swinger like "L-O-V-E," something seems to keep him invisibly tethered.
It's instructive to consider a couple of other major Nat King Cole tribute albums, which made a point of balancing out the pathos with some play. Cole's daughter, Natalie, will always be linked to her digital séance of a duet on "Unforgettable" — but remember how she nailed that "Wham! Bam! Alakazam!" in "Orange Colored Sky"? Diana Krall, on her career-making 1996 album All for You: A Dedication to the Nat King Cole Trio, stirred up a delightful "Frim Fram Sauce." The closest Porter comes to a lighter side is probably "Ballerina" — a song about romantic hopes dashed by professional ambitions.
Then again, there's "Pick Yourself Up," the song he received as a boon to his younger self. The orchestration is lissome and swinging, with a nod to Gil Evans, and Porter exudes charm and encouragement; it sounds like he's singing to his own son, closing some kind of loop.
Later on, there's "I Wonder Who My Daddy Is," a Gladys Shelley tearjerker memorably recorded by Nat's younger brother, Freddie Cole. Too on the nose? Maybe, but Porter gives the song an impeccable treatment, if you can buy in all the way. Buying in may be the crucial factor here, for Porter no less than for his listeners.
"Imagination is strong, sometimes strong enough to take the place of reality," he reflected in the closing scene of Nat King Cole & Me, the musical. "Nat wasn't my father, and my father never apologized. But I say Nat was. And my father did."