Review by Tree Palmedo

The instrumental jazz concept album can be a tricky undertaking. With no lyrical content to make the music’s meanings clear, the message of a record can easily be lost in abstraction. And yet when the music and ideas are equally strong, the jazz concept album can be extraordinarily effective, with examples going back to Max Roach’s We Insist, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and more recent projects like Kenny Garrett’s Beyond the Wall. 

With his second release as a leader, Portland/NY trumpeter Charlie Porter has created a formidable addition to this hallowed lineage. As its name implies, Immigration Nation is a defense of America’s rich diversity and an exploration of Porter’s own immigrant roots, but it’s also a collection of engaging post-bop compositions that blend the stylings of Jazz Messengers-era Wayne Shorter with an eclectic mix of ideas and influences.

Porter has split the album into parts, titled “Leaving Home” and “New Beginnings.” The first of these kicks off with the title track, “Immigration Nation,” which establishes the melting-pot nature of the record. Afro-Cuban and New Orleans rhythms dance together with moody Spanish and Lebanese modalities, punctuated by doubled basslines from bassist David Wong and the left hand of pianist Oscar Perez. Other highlights include the acrobatic “Flight” and the finale of Part 1, “The Unexpected,” which shifts from a quick-tempo waltz into several varied grooves meant to depict the twists and turns of an immigrant’s journey. 

Some of the most breathtaking parts of the album are its gentle moments, like the subdued “A Deepening Sense,” which unfolds slowly and features a husky solo from saxophonist Nick Biello. And the grand finale at the end of the epic suite, the nearly 14-minute “Chant,” is a haunting slow-tempo melody reminiscent of the final movement of A Love Supreme that ends with a chorus of voices, recorded around the world, joining together on Porter’s blues-inflected melody. 

The cast of musicians assembled here is top-notch throughout: Biello, Perez and Wong are engaging soloists, drummer Nick Salter adds fire without overplaying, and vocalist Sabine Kabongo adds an emotive, elastic vocal performance to the ballad “Second Chance” (with lyrics by Porter and Jacob Miller). But for all the ample showcases he gives the band, Porter still feels like the center of the record. His astonishing fluidity and command of the jazz vernacular are consistently dazzling, and his sensitive flugelhorn playing adds a buttery sheen to each of the album’s shimmering ballads. Porter has already positioned himself as one of the contemporary straight-ahead jazz scene’s most exciting trumpeters, but this album goes further, documenting his impressive ambition as a composer, bandleader, and conceptualist.