Getting into his groove

From aspiring football star to acclaimed jazz singer, Gregory Porter has been on a fascinating journey, says Kieran Bohane

Getting into his groove

HOW apt that one of the headline acts at this year’s Guinness Jazz Festival is a certain Mr Porter. How apt also, that one of Guinness’ best-known slogans is “good things come to those who wait”.

Gregory Porter has waited almost half his adult life to become an overnight sensation. The 41-year-old jazz singer released his first album Water just two years ago and it created such a stir that, like a river in spate, it burst its banks, crossing many musical boundaries before reaching its blue water moment when it received a Grammy nomination.

Speaking on the phone from his hotel in the South of France, where he is on tour, he exudes charisma and answers questions with the same honesty that shines through his lyrics. He’s clearly enjoying his time riding this crest of a wave.

“While walking around this beautiful city [Montelimar, just north of Montpellier and Marseilles] a bunch of young musicians came up to me and it was nice they knew who I was. Sometimes there can be a drop in the jazz information from generation to generation and if I’m here to pick up the slack because some songs catch the ear of people who may not be jazz fans and if I can bring them in, then that’s great.”

As to being an ‘overnight sensation’ he says there’s been a lot of work and water under the bridge. Although he had been singing since he was a child, he harboured an ambition to be a professional footballer. He went on to study city planning at university in San Diego, where a shoulder injury put paid to his sporting hopes. But football’s loss was music’s gain. Porter, whose musical hero was Nat King Cole, then got into jazz more seriously. After messing about in jam sessions with some fellow students he befriended music lecturer and early mentor Kamau Kenyatta. He suggested Porter sing for respected flautist Hubert Laws and he made his recording debut singing Smile on Laws’ 1998 CD, Remembering Nat King Cole. This led to a role in the Broadway musical It Ain’t Nothing But The Blues which went on to win a Tony award. He then composed his own musical Nat King Cole and Me and continued to explore musical theatre. By this time jazz had taken hold and while doing various jobs he pursued Motema records with a view to cutting his own disc.

“Getting into theatre was accidental. I say accidental but you prepare for it. Then it comes along when you don’t expect it and then you’re in it. You know some things don’t happen ‘til they happen and there was a lot of conversations with Motema as the months rolled by.

“I was in talks over a long time until I said ‘come to one of my gigs’, which they did. I did a couple of songs and after hearing 1960 What? they were impressed and said ‘let’s talk, let’s make this happen’.

“If you go about things organically, which is what I try to do in my writing and my choice of musicians, if you’re like water and you fall to a point of least resistance, sometimes interesting things happen. I think that’s the way my career has gone.”

Of course, for an artist who is deemed the ‘next big thing’ there are the inevitable remixes, to which Porter takes a measured and thoughtful approach, saying he likes some but not all.

“I like it when they keep the honesty and stay true to the spirit of the song. Yeah, they can do what they like to the music and the lyric but if they take it to a new place that’s fine. I particularly like the Opolupo [Stockholm-based DJ Peter ‘Opolopo’ Major] mix on 1960 What?”

PLAYING with Porter at the Everyman Theatre on Saturday, Oct 27, will be Chip Crawford, piano; Yoske Sato, alto sax; Aaron James, bass and Emanual Harrold, drums. They’ve been together as a unit for nearly five years and the idea of a regular band sits well with Porter who pours scorn on a recent New York Times article which suggested such was his stature that he’s already outgrown the band.

“I am the leader and ultimately the music and inspiration comes from me. However, I’ve always wanted to work with musicians that had some musical character. To me these guys have personal views and personal charisma that comes out in the music. I present my music to them and they inject a bit of their personality. I like that and I feel we are a band in the traditional sense. ”

With all this globetrotting, where does he get the time to sit down and write songs? After France, it’s Hamburg, then, after playing in Cork and the following night in Belfast, these travelling troubadours head back to Salzburg in Austria before going on to Melbourne and Sydney. From there it’s back to Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola in New York before once again heading back out on the road on Dec 28 for a series of concerts in Italy.

“With regard to the songwriting I don’t try and sit down and write. I try to capture it when it comes. I never sit at a desk or at a piano and write songs and that’s what works for me. It’s generally something I want to say and something that means a lot. I usually just scribble down something and I should carry a notebook or recording device as it invariably happens while I’m on the move: in a plane, on a train or simply walking around some city or town where I’m playing.”

Porter’s late mother Ruth features in a lot of what he is all about. She must have been a formidable personality to keep him and his siblings in check: he is the second youngest of eight children and, while rearing six of her kids as a single parent, she also practiced as a minister in her local church, worked as a nurse and spent time as an estate agent. On the wonderful and heartfelt ‘Mother’s Song’ which features on Be Good he pays tribute to her. Did she help instil a sense of honesty both in his life and music?

“Yes, musically I just want to be truthful. Even in my recordings I don’t do a lot of this over–dubbing, pitch correction, etc. Sometimes you can suck the spirit out of a song by re-recording and smoothing it out. I just want to be honest in who I am; in my life, my writing and my recording.

“You can’t worry about criticism. I just want to be me and what comes out is honest. In my singing career, I want to work with a whole bunch of different people: some in pristine recording environments; some in wild or improvised environments. I want to experience the full spectrum but when I have control of it, I just want it to be me, the microphone and the musicians telling a story. That’s what music is all about when you boil it all down.”

And Porter does tell some powerful stories. His album Water was originally entitled Love and Protest — a reference to the two major strands of his vision. On it there’s a marked contrast with the upbeat lyrics “I just can’t stop thinking about you” on the song Magic Cap and the lines “Young man coming out of a liquor store/With three piece of licorice in his hand/Mister policeman thought it was a gun/Thought he was the one/Shot him down …” from ‘1960 What?’, a powerful piece which deals with the aftermath of the Martin Luther King killing and street riots throughout America. It seems even though he’s only on his second album that ‘1960 What?’ is turning out to be a signature tune.

“Yeah, it looks like it and I’d get in trouble if I walked off stage without playing it.”

When he is not “doing music” he likes nothing better than getting down and dirty in the kitchen.

“Cooking is my thing. I like to have dinner parties and love to cook. I’ve cooked in professional kitchens and did a bit of catering in my time.”

Again he credits his mother for his love of cooking and says “cooking and singing kept me in her good graces”. And these, apart from a penchant for shopping for vintage clothes, is what he does. With such a schedule, there’s probably no time for anything else, although good things come to those who wait.

* Gregory Porter is at the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival at the Everyman on Sat, Oct 27, in a double bill with trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s Quintet.

* See hereand here

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