Bass Players To Know: George Porter Jr.
It should be no surprise that George Porter, Jr.’s picture was used to feature our announcement of the Bass Players to Know series, because frankly, he’s one of the funkiest men out there. Devilishly hiding behind an old, authentically road worn Fender P-bass, he can speak volumes with a single note played in just the right place. So, for all of you adventuring into the world of funk and New Orleans based grooves, Porter is most certainly a bass player to know.
So Who Is George Porter, Jr.?
George Porter, Jr. is a native of New Orleans, Louisiana. Growing up in a musical family, he was exposed to church choirs, jazz, and traditional New Orleans music. Although he initially played rhythm guitar, he made the switch to bass after meeting and having a few lessons from another New Orleans bass player, Benjamin “Poppi” Francis. At a young age, Porter developed a friendship with drummer Joe “Zigaboo” Modeliste the two began jamming and playing local clubs. In his late teens, he met Art Neville and was asked to join his band, Neville Sound. Many local club gigs and a few line-up changes later, the core group of Art Neville, Zigaboo Modeliste, Leo Nocentilli, and Porter signed a record deal with Allen Toussaint and changed their name to The Meters.
During the early to mid 70’s, The Meters released a handful of records and hit the road, eventually opening for the Rolling Stones in 1975. During this time, Toussaint also called upon Porter and other members of The Meters to play on record dates for artists such as Lee Dorsey, Robert Palmer, and Dr. John. Although The Meters eventually decided to part ways in 1977, various members have reunited over the years, adopting names such as The Funky Meters and The Original Meters.
After the initial breakup of The Meters, Porter formed the band Joyride and continued to do session work. He can be heard on records with Taj Mahal, Tori Amos, John Scoffield, Patti LaBelle, Albert King, David Byrne, Warren Haynes, Robbie Robertson, and many others. He currently continues to tour with The Runnin’ Pardners, The Funky Meters, and various other projects.
Let’s Talk Style
As I visit and revisit some of the old Meters tunes, I can’t help but notice the greatest groove-inducing element: space. Porter usually begins with a distinctive line, often of just a few notes, that is enhanced by the accompanying swing of the rhythm guitar. The simple phrase leaves room for organ embellishments and the highly syncopated, second-line inspired drums and percussion (“Fire On The Bayou” and “People Say” are great examples of this). His mature and minimalist approach is the basis for many of the hit instrumental tunes from the group… he functions as the foundation of the groove, the rice of the gumbo.
From a harmonic standpoint, Porter’s approach to songs with a major tonality frequently pulls from a “bayouized” version of an arpeggio with the addition of a 6th. A common pattern in blues and Zydeco (a traditional Louisiana/Cajun genre), he adds glissandos or half-step pickups as he moves through the major pentatonic scale. This creates a bit of tension, particularly when he accentuates a chromatic triplet line (2-b3-3). More often than not, Porter creates a groove simply using the root, 5th, and 7th, leaving plenty of room for harmonic interpretation by the soloists and intricate fills that flirt with thirds. This provides him with an interesting advantage; he can choose to pronounce the flat third to firmly dictate a minor tonality or to add bluesy dissonance with a major third over a 9th or #9th chord.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Hey Pocky A-Way” (The Meters: Rejuvenation)
Kicking off with Zigaboo’s signature New Orleans style drum groove, Porter enters the mix with an attention-grabbing lick. He relies heavily on “gulping” slides as he jumps registers and casually brushes a 7th chord double stop before settling into the trademark groove of the song. Maintaining a consistent groove through all of the verses, Porter exemplifies the concept of space with a two bar phrase that leaves the last two beats open. This creates anticipation for the return of the bass and allows space for horn stabs and a single percussive clap on beat four.
“Medley: Cissy Strut/Soul Island/You’re the One” (The Funky Meters: Fiyo at the Fillmore, Vol. 1)
This particular track is a great window into the live playing of Porter. With more improvisation and wiggle room, the band plays a medley beginning with their best-known hit, “Cissy Strut.” Porter takes a heavily punctuated and staccato approach to the notes (as compared to the original record) and lets loose during the jam and solo section. Relying heavily on the root, 5th, and 2nd, he outlines the harmony of a 9th chord but leaves plenty of space for the funky interpretation of the major and minor 3rd. He settles into another groove theme towards the end of the jam, accenting the 6th and flat 7th to heighten the dynamic solo section before returning to the main theme. Jumping into the Caribbean style “Soul Island,” the band is ushered in by Porter’s rhythmic pulses on the root. Towards the end of this section of the medley, Porter plays a syncopated harmony line to accompany the lead guitar line before leaving room for the drum breakdown and transition to “You’re The One.”
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“Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley” (Robert Palmer: Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley)
As the title track to Robert Palmer’s debut solo record, Porter begins the groove with staccato, 16th note stabs on the root. He fits in amongst the percussive keyboard part and leaves space for the snare accents on beats two and four. After following the chord changes with definitive, yet equally assertive half notes, he concludes the groove structure with a funky lick stemming from the 4th and leading straight back to the 16th note punches on the root. Although there is little, if any, variation in the bass line, he carries the track with his feel and signature lick.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with George Porter, Jr.? Please share with us in the comments.
Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!