Gregory Porter: “People who listen to soul driven music should look for it in all genres”


To be quite honest, I’d never heard of Gregory Porter before.  Although he was tipped by UK pianist Jamie Cullum, I just figured that it was another weightless promotion by the industry in order to sell records.  However, after listening to his debut album Water, and watching Gregory Porter perform live, I was proved wrong.  This jazz singer’s got something special.  

As I sat down under a glow of shimmering fluorescent blue lights and a low melody of delicate sounds from the grand piano at The Pizza Express Jazz Club on Dean Street in London, I thought of Gregory’s appearance; an eminent-looking, bearded gentleman who wears the classy-old suits like the swinging Rat-Pack used to wear, mixed with a mysterious black piece of fabric that wraps under his chin and around his ears, something that looks like it is only common to usage when skiing – what was it?!  He was a cocktail of influences, no doubt.

He who was brimming with the musical bravadoes of a 1920s speakeasy front-man greeted me with a glass of white wine in one hand, and a firm bone-crunching handshake in the other; “Hello, hello, hello.;.”

Based in Bed-Stuy, New York, Porter traverses the music scenes in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Harlem. “There’s a warm group of musicians in each place that I’ve found.  Musicians that have been playing music their entire lives and they have some love and ownership of the music,” he says, “and so immediately upon meeting them, they embraced me.”

Born in California, Porter grew up in Los Angeles and Bakersfield; the latter he describes as “a transplantation of Southern United States,” adding, “many of the African-American citizens are from the south and with that they carry southern traditions, cooking traditions, and church/worship traditions…”

“I grew up listening to the gospel influences, the many mass choirs and those types of things. But, Nat King Cole factored in very early in my life; Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke,” he says of his musical groundings in the ’70s. “I didn’t exactly know what I was hearing, but I felt very much an understanding and a kinship with the music. Much of it sounded like it had its gospel routes with me, so I understood it very much. Few years later, I would have to say Donny Hathaway actually, Marvin Gaye, all those things. I was listening to that at a very early age.”

Having built his musical foundations in church, where he sang throughout his life, destiny took Gregory onto a different path as he attended San Diego State University on an American football scholarship. Then injury struck. “Early in my college career I tore my shoulder up, and I still was able to retain my scholarship but I couldn’t play anymore.

“I was devastated by it, but my mother was very excited,” he recalls, laughing.  “She was like, ‘Now you can concentrate on the singing and your studies.’  You know, she thought football was violent and angry, and she didn’t think it worked with my personality – but I loved it, and I was a good player.  But yeah that was a transition for me;  I started to involve myself with theatre on campus.”


“After college I started to get into singing in some of the local jazz clubs in San Diego.  Somebody who had heard me suggested that I audition for theatre, for some professional theatre that was going on.  When I hurt myself in college, I got into theatre groups then, so it wasn’t something I wasn’t familiar with.”

He expands on his career in theatre, and the training of his jazz voice as he performed nightly. “My first play was called Avenue X, and then after that I joined a play called It Ain’t Nothing But The Blues.  We travelled all over the US and eventually we performed in New Jersey where Broadway producers saw it and were like, ‘This needs to be on Broadway.’ ”

“Fortunately I was in musicals that required me to sing the way I sing.  The first musical I was in was a doo-wop musical, and they wanted me to sing in a soulful, very strong way that I had always sung.  They heard me and were like, ‘we want some of that in our play.’

“They didn’t try to shape me to what they thought the piece should be.  And I joined the same type of project when I got into the show, It Ain’t Nothing But The Blues.  It was basically the history of American music, from Africa to the Mississippi Delta.  So that was dealing with blues, and touching on country western, all the things that I had been steeped in, and really that is where I really in an intellectual way saw the connections between the music – jazz, blues and gospel.”

As he developed his voice and musical understandings, Gregory Porter was to eventually be signed by the indie label, Motema Music, to create his debut album, Water. His Grammy nomination, for Best Jazz Vocal Album, indulged listeners to an eclectic array of familiar jazzy influences through a political, poignantly human selection of tracks.

Gregory and I talk about the album’s origins and concept. A project borne of creative freedom, “Everything that I want to say, I get to say…,” confirms Porter. “Just to have an album that’s like me; the way I’ve listened to music, the way I’ve enjoyed performing music, the eclectic styles, just completely in the tradition of jazz, but also soul, r&b, and gospel.  All the things that have come into my life.”

Porter pinpoints lyrical jazz song ‘Illusion’ and ‘1960 What?’ as songs that define him, with an interesting philosophy. “The balance I think is interesting to me.  The two together are essentially me, both the bitter and the sweet.  I think that way about the music, that way about the balance of people, I think that way about relationships.  They’re two sided, two-faced.”

Seems to me that “1960 What?” is quite a political tune, isn’t it?

“It’s neither a celebration or degradation of the political uprisings that happened in the US in the ’60s – all over the US, not just in Detroit.  That level of uprising caused a shift in politics, and a shift in peoples’ attitudes towards people.  It’s essentially a documented conversation of the absurdity of injustice, and the pain that injustice causes, and the after affect of that pain. ‘If you’ve done something to me, I’m gonna strike back the only way I know how.  I’m going to do something to myself,’ essentially. The people that riot, mostly just often burn their own neighbourhoods.”

His ending sentence sends a chill down my spine. It was awfully reminiscent of the London August riots.

“It’s like dousing yourself with fire.  Those are instances of pain, whether they’re justly caused by a particular incident whether that incident is real or not, the pain that comes from it is real.  And in relationships, if you’re partner feels slighted or mistreated or ignored, it’s not whether you did it or not, or whether you intended or not, it’s what that person feels.”

He relates, “In the body if there is something that is unaddressed, it’ll work itself in the situation where it’ll either come out in the skin, or come out in pain.  The artist is to sometimes deal with the pain in his head, and it’ll come out in his artwork.  So, if I feel like some people are mistreated, or if there is a love that I want to express, then I can do it in song.  It’ll just cease there and flower.”

Having recently finishing recording his second album, Be Good, Gregory describes it as a mixtape of “some things that are outright R&B/Soul songs, and some swinging jazz songs – but the two are from the same place.” He explains, “I’m trying to be honest with each.  I’m trying to push my voice to the places that are audible to the ear.  There are some songs that I’m singing very mildly – I’m not going for that big note or that high note.  Hopefully it’ll come across as honest. I’m not trying to be more pop. I’m just trying to be me. I play what I feel.”

Gregory’s parting words advise listeners to “Go out of the normal parameters to find the soul.” He expands, “Many people think they know what they’re gonna hear when they say, ‘Gregory Porter, the jazz singer.’  But they don’t know.”

“You have to have your ears wide open because there is soul in every type of music.  You just have to listen for it, and you have to be sensitive and wise to listen to it.  People who listen to emotion driven, soul driven music should look for it in all genres, because it exists.”

Water is out now, whilst Gregory Porter’s sophomore LP Be Good is anticipated for release in early 2012.
Visit GregoryPorter.com for news and tourdates.

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