Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Gregory Porter: Rebirth of the Cool

Gregory Porter
Gregory Porter Gregory Porter Gregory Porter Gregory Porter

It was Malvolio in Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night' who once said "Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Well if Gregory Porter had lived back in the day when the bard of Stratford used to wax lyrical, I'm sure this singer's effortlessly deft vocal would have drawn parallel comment within this mighty empowering colossus of verse.

Singer/songwriter/actor Gregory Porter was born in November 1971 in Los Angeles, California and grew up for the most part in Bakersfield. Son of a church minister and the youngest of six, Porter was raised by this devoted ambassador of God single handed. To say his mother had a profound baring on his life/career would be an understatement, as his involvement with the church helped hone his vocal skills and her day-to-day workings in her ordained office would prove abundant fodder for his lyrical scribblings.

It was a young Porter who was cast in the soon to multi-award nominated musical 'Avenue X.' This happened shortly after being discovered/contributing to a friend's album, with his attention grabbing and career propelling rendition of the Nat King Cole classic 'Smile.' Cole's material would continue to influence the vocalist, with Porter drawing distinct parallels with Cole's life and his own…the result of which caused Porter to pen his own musical, the semi-autobiograpical and often candid "Nat King Cole and Me," which drew instant admiration as it continued to tour…eventually without Porter.

2012 saw album 'Be Good' continue the star's upward momentum and in turn pick up plaudits by the truck load…Jazz vocalist/pianist Jamie Cullum being one, who cited Porter's "Special" vocal. It was a vocal which seemed to cross genre at will, as the artist was not only being likened to THE best jazz vocalists who have graced their genre, but by now many soul icon to - Donny Hathaway, Nat King Cole and Marvin Gaye to name but three.

We now hop, skip and jump to this year…and another huge Gregory Porter album, sorry HUGE album, 'Liquid Sprit' - backed this time by monumental jazz stalwarts Blue Note. This interlinking of the best with THE best (you choose which way round) cannot be a surprise many and I'm pleased to report first hand that this release is as as close to jazz vocal perfection as you can get.

So without further ado, we join the man himself backtent at the inaugural Jazz FM 'Love Supreme' festival…where a VERY warm B&S Editor Lee Tyler tries to shoot 'some' breeze with this modern day jazz great, while trying to contend with a VERY noisy adjoining tent - who are excitedly cheering every swing of Andrew Murray's racket as he reaches the Wimbledon summit.

His memories of his journey to where he is now

I use these words maybe too liberally, but it's been an ORGANIC GROWTH in a way…and I think this is the best way because I don't think I've been completely WHITE HOT…I spent a gradual growth in each place. I've had to GO several times, I've had to GO and perform and loose money to perform! (laughs) …The audience doesn't know that you know? When you go to perform and you bring in your band to LOOSE money, to perform for them, they don't know that…they think, "oh, this guy must get paid $30,000 to be here tonight." For the first time you're there it's not the case, maybe the second time it's not the case and you're doing that to GET them. But to do that, you gotta come with it to get them, you have to perform like you are making thirty grand!

What he thinks of his various audiences…how his style took shape and the sometimes seemingly political nature of his material

I've found that about UK audiences, they are generous, and they like a soulful expression no matter where it's coming from…if it's folk music they like a soulful expression, and I don't mean soul in the African-American sense, I mean the depth of heart.

The warm reception I received in places, I allow that to effect how I continue to approach music in terms of…it's not a pandering thing that I need to do, I think I need to keep listening to my heart and listening to my head and follow that…cos this is the thing that people dig, if you're doing something honestly and with conviction, they'll come with you. I'm sure there is probably some people who may listen to 'When Love Was King' and say, "OK, there's some politics in there I don't believe in." You know, "…He rescued those who are lost at Sea and drifting vessels he could hear their plea…". You know, that could be immigrants who are coming to the country.

With many jazz singers…there's a lot of politics in jazz, Abbey Lincoln you know? You can respect what she does with her voice, what she does with the music, there's a whole lot of things to enjoy there - you don't have to agree with everything. But there is something there that is strikingly beautiful…I'm not saying that about my own work, I'm just saying, I continue to do…

There have been people, even reviewers, that have said about '1960 What?' "Political rant!" …and then they came back a couple of months later and were like "I was wrong, it's actually saying more." In a way, if you're thinking, just think of the whole aspect of it. '1960 What?' is also to look to the future and look to where we've been and say "WOW, look where we are now!" It's a thing to be proud of in a way, it's like "WOW, it's not like that anymore!" Or it's to say "It's like that in OTHER places," do you know what I'm saying?

The crossover question…will we hear more?

Not initially…I may crossover completely, but I'll go back…I'm a jazz singer, but I love soul, I love gospel, I love blues…I would love to do an acoustic blues thing, who knows what will happen. It certainly opens the door for you to be able to do that in the future… You know there are some people who tell me what I should be doing next…(in a comic voice) They say "Ok stop this jazzy, jazzy shit! Go straight to soul, that's where you'll make a million!" I was like "maybe…" But I'm saying I ENJOYED that! Cos I'm gonna give them (soul-heads) something they can get with and I'm gonna give the jazz-heads something they can get with, but that's not an intention, that's just where my music is.

His signing to the Blue Note label and his 'In Crowd' Ramsey Lewis cover

That's the song I choose after I knew it was a Blue Note record. I'm asking myself THE question, kind of a cheeky…Well, first and foremost it's kinda where I'm at musically. Ramsey Lewis was kinda doing it early on - straddling these lines of gospel, soul, Jazz…so that's where I am, so that song was perfect in that way - I love Dobie Gray. Both his vocal and the thought of the vibe that was on that tune before…So, (laughs) I'm asking myself the cheeky question, am I in with the in crowd? Well it's Blue Note Records, it means something to a lot of people and it means something to ME.

They (Blue Note) said, "just be you! You have have some toons and write some toons." That's a all Don (Was …president of Blue Note Records) said to me …They didn't stipulate a time period, I assumed it would be the same as what I was thinking, I knew it was time…I had a long tour schedule but I did have a two week break that I felt I could get something done.

I think I was pressuring myself, I think I saw the window where it needed to happen. The things that time for me is like photos and graphics and all that (laughs to himself) - we did the music, in a way…Listen, SURE there are artists that are out there who get to take six months to craft a record, I just haven't had that yet and I don't know if I'll even do that kinda thing. But I'm not sure yet, somebody would have to talk to me about what that means, I don't know what that means…"ok, we'll be in the studio for four days this month and next month seven days." That's never happened. I've got two days, hit it!


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