Cliff Porter’s jazzy tribute to ‘Songs in the Key of Life’

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Cliff Porter celebrates his 40th birthday and the anniversary of Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” at the Cargo Concert Hall with the Reno Jazz Syndicate and several more artists.
Tahoe Onstage photos by Tim Parsons

To cover even a single Stevie Wonder song is an impressive undertaking. Many of his songs, on top of being musically involved, are also so well-known by the general populace that even a minor flub is a cringeworthy moment. So when Cliff Porter, drummer and vocalist in local funk band Jelly Bread, decided to cover a whole set’s worth of material from Wonder’s most popular album, “Songs In The Key Of Life,” I was skeptical.

Porter was celebrating his 40th birthday, which coincided with the Sept. 28, 1976, release of Wonder’s iconic album. But when I arrived at the Cargo Concert Hall my worrying vanished (and really, I should have known better). Porter didn’t get some cover band to work through the hits — he enlisted Reno’s premier, jack-of-all-trades Tristan Selzler to assemble the ever-amorphous Reno Jazz Syndicate and chart out both fan-favorites and deep-cuts alike.

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The approximately 20-piece Syndicate Big Band included a who’s who of local musicians, with The Novelists’ bassist Zach Teran, Redfield Clipper frontman Nicholas Mills on guitar, Mojo Green sax-man Kevin Thomas and Buster Blue alum Rachael McElhiney. Selzler spent much of the performance with his back to the crowd conducting the unit through the tunes as Porter entertained the small but mighty crowd with his soulful, acrobatic vocals.

Many of the tunes were extended to leave room for various solos and exploration, and with Selzler at the helm, the group stayed grounded to the song while the soloists flew over it. One such highlight was Mills’ solo on “Have A Talk With God” and another was funky interplay between Teran and drummer Te Kanawa Haereiti on “Black Man.”

Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Porter’s involvement of guest vocalists was also a welcome element. Local singer Nesi Finau tore through a run-filled version of “Isn’t She Lovely,” Camille Betton sang a tender “Knocks Me Off My Feet” and near the end of the set Jessica Vann sang a stirring “As.” Porter thanked the guest vocalists, the band, and the audience between most songs and his gratitude was apparent especially when mentioning his family.

“Everybody give it up for my mother Connie Coleman who came all the way from Vegas for this!” Porter said with a smile as the night transitioned from one of rehearsed tunes and charts to one of raw improvisation. Cliff got on drums and brought up Jelly Bread bassist Errick Lewis for a run through The Meters’ classic “Cissy Strut.” A handful of horn players stayed onstage and took their solos but the show was all Lewis’ as he toyed with the main refrain before turning it on its head and leading the band into a frenzy.

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New Jelly bread bassist Errick Lewis joins the jam.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

The jam session continued with Porter starting off the Wonder classic “Superstition” from 1972’s “Talking Book” before handing the sticks to local drummer Miguel Jimenez-Cruz and reclaiming his position as frontman. The 15-minute long rendition featured Porter’s father, Charles Porter, singing the second verse, a guitar solo by Selzler, and a tasteful back and forth between McElhiney on baritone sax and Nina Wine on alto. The crowd ate it up, but the family affair didn’t stop there. Porter then brought up two of his sons, Cliff Jr. and Tevien, on keyboard and drums and had them play the room out.

“This is that walking out music. These guys will play and you guys just leave,” he said with a laugh. The only problem? No one left. The crowd stayed put and watched the family of musicians share in the joy that is live music. As the jam ended, the audience filtered out with the tunes of Stevie Wonder as well as the exceptionally talented Porter family on their minds. The night was an unabashed success and an extended preview of what is sure to come for Porter’s future birthdays.

  • Cliff Porter and the Reno Jazz Syndicate Big Band
    Sept. 28, 2016
    Cargo Concert Hall set list, Stevie Wonder portion
    Loves in Need of Love Today
    I Wish
    Ebony Eyes
    Sir Duke
    Have a Talk with God
    Isn’t She Lovely
    Knocks Me Off My Feet
    Pastime Paradise
    Easy Going Evening
Porter's youngest and oldest sons, Tevien, drums, and Cliff Jr., keyboards, keep their eyes on dad. Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Porter’s youngest and oldest sons, Tevien, drums, and Cliff Jr., keyboards, keep their eyes on dad.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Tahoe Onstage

Tristan Selzler conducts the Reno Jazz Syndicate Big Band.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Tahoe Onstage

Cliff Porter’s father Charles takes the stage.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Tahoe Onstage

From left, Errick Lewis, Miguel Jimenez-Cruz , Eric Matlock and Tristan Selzler.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Tahoe Onstage

About Spencer Kilpatrick

Author Spencer Kilpatrick graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in English. He hates the Lakers and his top three emcees are Blu, Earl Sweatshirt and Nas.

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