What’s Old Is New: Ryan Porter’s ‘The Optimist’ Finally Arrives

Dean Van Nguyen breaks down Ryan Porter's now (old) LP, 'The Optimist.'
By    March 15, 2018

Dean Van Nguyen is a business, man.

In the basement of Kamasi Washington’s parents former home,  the loose collective of musicians known as The West Coast Get Down developed the virtuosity that flows through Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. It’s the subterranean lair where Washington honed the chops that would eventually appear on his jazz classic, The Epic. And, in 2008 and 2009, the house that sits right under the LAX landing arc is where trombonist Ryan Porter led recording sessions that have now manifested as The Optimist—a long, lush, magnificent record that encapsulates the excellence of this clique. Flanked by the likes of Washington (tenor saxophone), Cameron Graves (piano and Fender Rhodes), Miles Mosley (upright bass), and Tony Austin (drums), among others, Porter’s tome is satin-smooth and cooly streetwise; gorgeous on the ear and edifying for the soul.

The genesis of The Optimist can be traced to Porter’s own Inglewood apartment. Back in 2008, the composer was perched at his piano and seeking inspiration when a voice suddenly called out from the TV in the corner. He turned to the screen to put a face to the words. Coming through clearly was Barack Obama. His message inspired a positive metamorphosis within Porter, which manifests itself over the album’s 11 tracks

This is a soundtrack for the good times. Right from peppy opener “The Psalmnist,” the songs are dapper, immaculately produced, and boast a lushness that seems to defy the cramped space in which the album was recorded.

Working in everything from Blaxploitation funk to gangsta rap, The Optimist pulls from a wide spectrum of Black American art, while offering a classic encapsulation of West Coast cool. As fresh as driving down Rosecrans Avenue in a crisp white shirt with the top down, the record slides comfortably alongside Terrace Martin’s Velvet Portraits and Thundercat’s Drunk as new-age LA classics that embrace and then mutate vintage styles.

Featuring Mosley’s mean bass and Aaron Haggerty’s punishingly whacked drums, “The Instrumental Hip-Hoppa” has one of the baddest engines of any jazz song I’ve ever heard. Up top, you can practically hear the smoke coming off the scorching brass section as it blasts a catchy riff. Most songs, in fact, feature some kind of hook, offering a launching point from which the band venture into more freestyle play.

The arrangements are laced with exhilarating sonic flourishes. Check out the squelchy bass that wanders in halfway through “K-Wash.” The swaggering “Little Sunflower” moves to the same bassline as Curtis Mayfield’s 1970s drug-slinging classic “Pusherman.” Showing the political nature of its conception, there’s an effective contrast in tone between “Obamanomics,” which boasts a brash, brass bluster that encapsulates the euphoria of Barack’s rise, and the more somber “Stugglesville,” which takes you down to the communities throughout America caught in a degenerative capitalist pincer movement.

It’s not until track seven that a song stretches over the nine minute mark, with four of the last five numbers doing so. 17-minute closer “Chocolate Nuisance” sees the band fully stretch their limbs, unleashing a series of crazy solos to stun you into a stupor. With Porter leading them, like Washington before, The West Coast Get Down sound like some of the finest musicians in the world. Genius has a funny way of gravitating towards genius. Earth might feel like a cursed place right now but in Los Angeles, these musicians managed to find each other. That’s something to be optimistic about.