Gregory Porter’s Popular Voices review – glorious survey of powerful pipes

From Prince and Whitney Houston to Mahalia Jackson, the first episode of the jazz star’s three-part series is a languid, loving celebration of vocal showstoppers

When love and knowledge of a subject combine in a presenter, you have a good presenter. When they combine in all the contributors too, you have a great documentary. Gregory Porter’s Popular Voices (BBC4) was a great documentary.

Porter is a Grammy award-winning soul and jazz star who set out last night to examine “showstoppers” – singers with powerhouse voices that are worth the price of admission alone. Porter chose Caruso as his starting point, bringing on tenor Stephen Castello to help him describe Caruso’s interpretative abilities, his sound and how it feels when talent and technique come together to get you where you need to be. “Everyone’s waiting for the high C … you feel it coming, you get it, and when it comes out you think ‘Oh yes, there it is!’ And it feels like you’re flying.”

Then there was a portrait of Mahalia Jackson, singing about, for and within the love of God. Porter, whose mother was a minister and introduced him to gospel singing, marvelled with the viewer at footage of Jackson pouring with sweat, hairpiece askew, voice as beautiful as it was untrammelled, as she sang to a greater glory.

Unhurried musical appreciations of Freddie Mercury (“Over the top as a choice”), Ella Fitzgerald (“She scats like entire horn sections”), Prince, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey followed.

The last section of the programme dwelt on the qualities of what is considered a showstopper voice today. In short: melisma. Not the name of another pioneering singer, but the practice of stringing a whole sequence of notes to one syllable of text. It is most often used now as the reality show contestants’ aural weapon of choice. “Ridiculous,” said a pained Clarke Peters. “Absolutely. Ridiculous.”

The common denominator of the virtuoso singers he profiled, Porter said, was that “all have more than technique – they have complete mastery of their instrument. And this gives them the freedom to express emotion, straight into the heart of the listener.” A greater glory all of its own.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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