Today’s the 46th birthday of the inspirational singer-songwriter Gregory Porter, who will drop his new album, a Nat Cole tribute, in a couple of weeks. For the occasion, here’s a feature article that I had the honor to write about this master for Jazziz in 2013.
Water pouring down the sidewalks/Cleaning windows clear to see/Washing gumdrop down side gutters/Rusting chains and cleansing me/Growing gardens, drowning ants/Changing rhythms, bruising plants/Graying vistas soulfully/And it’s saving me. —“Water,” Gregory Porter
It rained torrents in Brooklyn on June’s first Friday, so much rain that at 3 p.m. water was flowing through crevices in the cornice atop the stoop of Gregory Porter’s Bedford Stuyvesant brownstone into the cramped vestibule. It was also, Porter said, seeping from the back into his ground-floor kitchen. No respite was in sight until well past Porter’s scheduled 7 o’clock flight to Pittsburgh, so it promised to be a long day. Still, the singer, sheathed in the black balaclava and Kangol cap that is his sartorial trademark, seemed stress-free as he escorted me upstairs, where it was dry.
In truth, the weather seemed an apropos backdrop for a discussion framed around Porter’s September Blue Note release, Liquid Spirit, which follows on the heels of his Grammy-nominated 2010 leader debut, Water [Motema] and its Grammy-nominated successor, Be Good [Motéma]. Both generated uncommon levels of crossover buzz for a release by a “jazz” singer. One reason is Porter’s dazzling toolkit—a resonant voice, multi-octave range, conversational projection and soulful feel. Another is his luminous songwriting—27 well-crafted originals on the three CDs that convey both grand metaphysical themes and intensely personal narratives in precise, symbolic, soul-baring language that evokes such late 20th-century masters as Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, Bill Withers and Abbey Lincoln, Donny Hathaway and Gil Scott-Heron. It’s also intriguing that the source of these introspections is a strapping, full-bearded ex-linebacker who built his Q-rating in the old-school, grassroots manner — several years of weekly Tuesday night appearances in the raucous confines of St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem, then a year of Thursday night three-setters at Smoke, the Upper West Side jazz club — after moving to New York in 2005.
“Some people told me, ‘Stop doing that damn gig,’” Porter says, recalling reaction to his appearances at St. Nick’s Pub. “But I dug that regular people would come in and buy a $3 beer and hear live jazz. So this lab that is St. Nick’s Pub — that is community, that is tourist — became this soulful place for me and the band as well. We enjoyed ourselves there for that little $30 or $40.”
These days Porter commands much higher fees. In five days, he would fly to Los Angeles to play the Hollywood Bowl, launching a summer itinerary of North American festival appearances and engagements in Europe, where he’s toured without respite during the past year. His fan base spans the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, and the former Soviet Union and Japan, where he was packing rooms well before Water launched his recording career. Increasingly his admirers also include peers and elders, including stylistically divergent artists like Wynton Marsalis, who in March cast Porter in the Trickster role originally inhabited by Jon Hendricks in a high-profile restaging of Blood On the Fields at the Rose Theater, and David Murray, who recruited Porter to sing lyrics by Ishmael Reed and Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets on Murray’s recently released Be My Monster Love.
“The hook-up with Gregory was one of the greatest things I could do with a vocalist,” Murray told me over the phone. “He can reach deep down, but also get up there, like the tenor or cello — he’s got power in all areas. He can sound like people, too. He can do all those things, which is phenomenal, and he’s a thinking man. I have total respect for him.”
“He has the spirit of the ’70s with a jazz aesthetic,” says Chip Crawford, Porter’s pianist from his earliest St. Nick’s Pub days. “I’m getting more and more amazed at his writing ability, plus his melodies are as good as anyone’s. At this point I don’t know if there is anyone who writes lyrics as well as him. And, if anybody has as good a voice as he does, let me hear it.”
“I try to be organic,” Porter says of his approach to making albums and writing lyrics. “I’m not calculating in terms of, ‘I want to write some modal music and connect it to Gregorian chant,’ which is a dope way to be as well. I open up my chest and arms and see what falls in there inspirationally, and these are the things that come out at the point of the release of energy. After everything is on the page, I look and say, ‘OK, this is what that is.’”
Having eased into the conversation, Porter adds, “I don’t mean to be throwaway about it, or like I’m not really thinking about everything.” He offers a creation story for “Wolf Song,” one of several pieces on Liquid Spirit that he generated during a fortnight in Europe shortly after his son was born and immediately before the mid-March recording session. “I had to get it done,” he recalls. “Concepts and even some lyrics formulated on the train across France. I remember looking at sheep on a hillside, and thinking: I wonder, are there any wolves? And then the thought: Boy who cried … boy who cries wolf. No. Girl who cries wolf. … Hmm. Have I had a girl cry ‘wolf’ for me about a love situation? Ah! The song started to write itself, right there on the train.”
Porter turned his attention to the title track, also conceived in France, while sitting in a coffee shop. “This piece of poetry flowed out of me quite easily,” he says, before reciting, plain-song: Un-re-route the river, let the dammed water be, there’s some people down the way that’s thirsty, so let the liquid spirit free. The folk are thirsty because of man’s unnatural hand. Watch what happens when the people catch wind of water hitting the backs of that hard, dry land.
“It came from people saying, ‘Where can I get some more of this kind of music? Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you.’ That energy, the music, love, culture and soul is somewhere, being re-routed or diverted. I wanted to be in front of people, and I didn’t have a gig. Now, I’m gigging, and I sing, and people say these things to me.”
“Music is subliminal,” Porter told a sold-out room at Subculture, a new basement space on Bleecker Street where he was presenting a showcase for Liquid Spirit the Monday after his Pittsburgh weekend. He’d just flown in, and it was raining again, as was evident from the soaked lapels on his beige sport jacket, which draped a white shirt, black vest and olive bowtie that complemented his black headgear. “It’s hypnotic, in a way,” Porter continued. “No matter how tired my voice is, no matter how I’m dressed, I can sing.”
Porter had performed infrequently in New York over the past year, so, as he said in a later chat, this appearance spurred “a bit of pent-up demand.” He added that the attendees — roughly three-quarters of whom were African-Americans, an unusually high proportion for a downtown jazz event — “were real fans; I didn’t stuff the house with just my friends from down the street.”
From the very first tune, they signified allegiance with a call-and-response that continued throughout the 75-minute set. On the title track, a blues stomp with an Oscar Brown-ish feel, Porter had no need to augment the exhortation “clap your hands now” with a crash course on finding the beat. “Work Song,” which he addressed with stylized rawness, elicited shouts of “Unh-uh, child!” from several enthusiastic women. The “congregants” imposed their own master plan on the set-closer, transforming “1960-What,” a soul-stirring, socially conscious number from the Les McCann-Eddie Harris “Compared to What?” playbook, into a collective sing-along.
Between songs, Porter, who is 41, testified at some length. After “Work Song,” for example, he spoke of Bakersfield, California, the dusty agriculture-and-oil city where Porter moved at 8 from Los Angeles with his siblings and mother, a pastor in the Church of God and Christ, who, he told me, circumvented doctrinal proscriptions against female practitioners by “calling every church that she established a ‘mission’ so that she could be the head missionary and, essentially, the head preacher.”
Onstage at Subculture, he told the room: “My mother had a real desire to go to the churches with older congregations — small storefront, no-air-conditioning churches. If the music I heard there disappears, then it will be — watch this word, it’s kind of heavy — a kind of musical genocide.” Having landed on the next song’s title, “Musical Genocide,” Porter’s simultaneously wrenching and affirmative delivery of the lyric encapsulated a sensibility that he internalized while singing at those churches while his mother preached.
Give me a blues song
Tell the world what’s wrong
And the gospel singer giving those messages of love
And the soul man with your heart in the palm of his hand
Bringing his stories of love and pain.
“Black people came to Bakersfield from the South, and all the black ministers were thick, farmer-hand preachers,” Porter had told me while seated on a couch in his living room. “They were singing a lot of deep Southern gospel blues. So I was singing with these old men who had great voices. Ted Johnson sounded like Leadbelly. Elder Kemp and Elder Duffy had the style of James Brown, and Pastor Richardson sounded like dead-on Sam Cooke. Others sounded like John Lee Hooker, and others like Bobby Bland, except for that snorting thing he does between phrases.
“Many times I hated it because it was hot in the church, and here I am on my knees with all these old people, singing these blues. Yeah-esss, Yahyaess, Yesss, Yes, Yehhhs. Now, that chord progression, you’re singing it a hundred times over an hour, but each time it’s slightly different. ‘Yes, you will, Yes, He will; yes, we will, yes, we will.’ ‘Save my children. SAY-YA-VE my child-dreh-ehn, SAYVE MAH CHIL-dren…” On and on and on. Very much like jazz. Deviating from the melody. These voices were constantly harmonizing. We would all do it as a group. And it’s just happening. Nobody’s saying, ‘You get this part and you get this part.’ I appreciate that steeping of music now. Sometimes in a song, I’ll go to that place, and that’s the energy that fuels that moment.”
Porter’s ability to make musical decisions in real time in functional, ritualized contexts allows him to mix and match genres that don’t always coalesce in jazz expression circa 2013. “I’m not saying this because I’m a black man trying to take ownership of any music,” he says, “but when I heard jazz, certain saxophone players playing the blues or something, I was like, ‘I hear my grandfather preaching; that’s my grandmother moaning over it when she cooks.’ It wasn’t, ‘I want to get with that.’ I heard myself, and I was like, ‘There’s something for me there, too.’ Then I opened myself up to wider things.”
Not only did Porter directly experience and absorb the gospel-blues tradition, but also his mother’s social-gospel practice of “always going wherever the need was deepest, wherever the battle was.” As Porter describes it, she fed and clothed and cleaned the indigent, answered calls from denizens who had overdosed on heroin or a “Sherman” — a cigarette dipped in PCP.
“Some way, people would find a way to call her when they got in the deepest situations,” he says. “My mother would somehow drive to the rescue, pull somebody into the back seat of her brand-new Cadillac, wrap them up in a sheet and pour water on their head until they came to after 2 or 3 hours. In a way, we were in the trenches with her. That sticks with you.” He quotes“When Love Was King,” from Liquid Spirit: “He lifted up the underneath/and all this wealth he did bequeath. There’s a bit of my mother, Martin Luther King and Jesus Christ in that song. Redemption was a big thing for her. Her water sermons were very important when I was a child, which is probably where all these water themes are coming from in my music.”
What primarily distinguishes Liquid Spirit from its predecessors is the pithiness of the 14 tracks — the track-lengths are shorter, the solo interludes fewer. Some have asked Porter whether this decision was to facilitate airplay for his “major label” debut. “Not really,” he says. “It’s a feeling of ‘Let me hit these blues and come off of them.’ I don’t put myself in the category of my influences — of great Japanese poetry or even the blues yet. But I want to get out these little ideas, restate them, and then rely on the energy it leaves to strike to the heart quickly, which to me is what a dope short blues song does.”
Porter’s path to blues expression as an avocation and not a sideline began in 1993, when his mother, on her deathbed with cancer, urged him “to really give singing a try.” He was then a 21-year-old undergraduate at San Diego State, where he’d matriculated on a football scholarship in 1990. A shoulder injury ended that dream, and Porter was focusing on city planning and “a nice government job, so she’d think I was doing something positive as she was leaving us.”
Eventually he started attending local jam sessions, which had a bebop flavor, “trying to get with Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure and Jon Hendricks,” sitting in with adept locals like trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos and saxophonist Daniel Jackson. One night, after he “tried to scat something over ‘Giant Steps,’” the master trombonist-composer George Lewis, a recent addition to the UC-San Diego faculty, invited him to his class.
“There were no vocalists there, and George started using me liberally from the beginning,” Porter says. “The students were dismissing the voice, but he said, ‘No, no, the voice is important; it does different things, it has its own qualities.’”
One day Lewis had to miss class, and called saxophonist-keyboardist-arranger Kamau Kenyatta to sub. “Kamau immediately brought me to his crib for lunch,” Porter says, recalling the beginning of an important and ongoing friendship (Kenyatta produced Water, and co-produced Be Good and Liquid Spirit with Brian Bacchus). “He did 12 charts, in my key, of different songs he thought would be good for me to learn. Kamau is from Detroit, and the relationship was in the tradition of that scene. You have lunch, do music, talk about it, play a bunch of songs. You live the music.”
In 1998, Porter, who was working at a Deepak Chopra Center for Wellbeing, (“personalizing body treatment oils and doing a bit of cooking in their kitchen”) went to a Hubert Laws recording session of Nat “King” Cole repertoire that Kenyatta was producing. Kenyatta asked Laws to listen to his protégé; Laws immediately invited Porter to sing a tune. His daughter, Eloise Laws, who was present, then urged Porter to attend a Los Angeles audition for the musical revue It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues. Porter, who had already appeared in the doo-wop musical Avenue X, was hired “on the spot” and joined the production for an 18-month run on Broadway. Then he did a national tour with the musical Civil War, returned to Los Angeles and started writing a musical — both songs and script — based on his relationship with the music of Nat Cole.
“I heard my mother’s Joe Williams and Nat Cole records when I was 5 or 6,” he recalls. “My father wasn’t around, and I’d look at Nat Cole’s LP covers and imagine he was my daddy. On mic checks and warm-ups for It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues. I’d sing ‘Mona Lisa,’ ‘When I Fall In Love,’ ‘Too Young,’ and the cats would comment that I should do something with it. I’d tell them how I got into him, and they’d respond that it was an interesting story, and at some point I realized that this was the story I had to tell.”
Nat King Cole and Me ran for two months at the Denver Center Theater, before 700-800 people a night. “They were responding to my songs as well as the Nat Cole songs,” Porter says. “That’s when the confidence in my songwriting began. Doing Ain’t Nothing But the Blues, I got so much exposure to great blues music, country to city, very sophisticated to just gutbucket. Just like jazz, I heard myself in it. Abbey Lincoln’s songs, her personal stories, made me realize that, sometimes, the more personal, the more universal. Then, too, the Bible and the style of speech in sermons convert well to song. Traveling around Europe, all those medieval cities, you feel like you should talk that way.”
Nat Cole and Me didn’t make it out of Denver, and its closing coincided with the end of a love affair. “I had a pocket full of money, and no place to go,” Porter says. “My brother was just setting up a coffee shop in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and he said, ‘Come here.’ So I came and worked in his shop, making soup. My idea was to stop going out and doing these small theater gigs that sustained me and kept insurance, to let me go broke, be hungry, but try solely to do the music thing.”
With all the momentum that Porter has generated in New York, for all the charisma he possesses, and, as Liquid Spirit co-producer Brian Bacchus says, with “nothing to prove in terms of jazz credentials,” it is curious that Porter still “feels like on the outside looking in,” quoting “The In Crowd,” which he covers on Liquid Spirit.
“I chose it after I knew this would be on Blue Note,” Porter says. “It’s a little commentary to myself, like, ‘Am I in that crowd now?’ I don’t know. At St. Nick’s, Frenchmen and Spaniards came who said, ‘You should be in France, you should be in Spain.’ I felt it, but I didn’t have a passport yet.” He references “Bling Bling,” a song from Be Good: “I’m so rich in love and so poor in everything that makes love matter/I’ve got gifts to give, but no place for those gifts to live. Eventually, I started to get the opportunities, and once they came. … But you don’t have confidence right off the bat. In a way, you build to it.”
Porter is “increasingly comfortable in the fact that I can only be me.” He cites sage advice from Marsalis. “Wynton told me, ‘There’s some things you have that can’t be learned; I’m sure there are some things you could know that would be instrumental to you. Whether you have them or not, get them, put them in your back pocket, and access them. But at the same time, use the facility that you have.’
“I have many things that I desire to do. Coming to the public eye slightly formed, people almost thought, ‘There are 10 records I can get somewhere, right?’ And there’s not. I say, ‘If you want 10 records, you’ve got to wait. You have to wait that 8 years or however long it takes.’”
Title: The Cat in the Hat
“My editor wanted me to ask you one question,” I told Porter at the end of our first conversation. Before I could mention that it was a query about his headgear, he interjected, “I know what the question is.” Then he laughed long and hard.
“Please tell me,” I said.
“It’s my jazz hat. I used to wear berets.”
“Do you wear it all the time? Are you wearing it just for me?”
“This is just for you. No …”
“How many do you have?”
“What’s the brand?”
“Well, this is a Kangol Summer Spitfire.”
“How many Kangols do you have?”
“These, I must have eight.”
“All the same?”
“No. I have a brown. I have five black. I have a red, a blue. … But the balaclavas, I have many-many-many. It’s my look, man. I’m recognized at a great distance.”
“How did the look begin?”
“Since I’ve been in Brooklyn. It’s been about six years.”
“What was the inspiration?”
“You do something one day, and you’re like, ‘This is my look.’”
“And you used to wear berets.”
“I used to wear berets. I still do every now and then, when I’m in church, you know.”
“Is the hat and the balaclava a sort of prop …”
“…to sing? I mean, does it kind of put you in character or …”
“When I go out with my wife, I’m dressed like this, too. Now, when we come home and we’re relaxed, no. But this is my look, my public look. It is a jazz hat. The first time I went to Russia, they asked me about it, and the next time I came, the kids came to the concert dressed like me. This was over five years ago. I remember they were taking pictures with their cell phones. And the next time I came, they came to the concert looking like me.”