Singing sensation Gregory Porter has come a long way since the UK release of his debut album, Water, in 2011 and his first ever worldwide front cover in Jazzwise in March 2012. Now one of the hottest tickets in jazz, the vocalist has exchanged intimate clubs for concert halls, signed to Blue Note with platinum-selling success and bagged a Grammy, all without ever losing sight of the salience of his message. With the release of his lastest long-player, Take Me To The Alley, the gregarious singer speaks to Kevin Le Gendre about how he’s come to terms with this upsurge in his fortunes by staying true to his roots and how the deep inequalities that continue to divide society affect him and his music. You can also listen to Jazzwise's Gregory Porter Influences – Jazz, Soul, Gospel and Grit playlist on Apple Music
Located in the part of central London immortalised by the Bohemian literary set beloved of BBC drama writers, The Bloomsbury is a grand hotel whose strikingly ornamental lobby alone would make a film crew swoon. The uniformed doormen could be the leaders of a male grooming campaign while the well heeled, largely middle-aged clientele look as if they are used to the sight of the inordinately long chaise longues and chandeliers bright enough to illuminate designer labels at a distance.
A Travelodge is within walking distance. It is more than a world away.
This is a very different setting to that of my first encounter with Gregory Porter. Five years ago, when the 44 year-old American singer ghosted in to Britain for his debut gig at the Pizza Express, he slept in the spare room of the west London flat of his manager’s friend.
There was no waiter to serve him cocktails. There were no slabs of Italian marble decorating the bathroom. There were expenses spared. “Yeah, I didn’t even have a hotel back then,” Porter chuckles. “Man, that place was cold. That’s one thing I do remember. But yeah, that was another time.” Indeed the Californian-born, Brooklyn-based singer was then an unknown quantity, with his auspicious debut Water yet to break in the UK.
Since then he has become one of the biggest new names in jazz, and, perhaps more importantly, the artist who may now be on the radar of listeners outside of the music, a scenario given credence by the huge audience Porter reached through his collaboration with electronic dance act Disclosure. Their 2015 summer anthem ‘Holding On’ took Porter literally and figuratively to the lucrative Ibiza club crowd.
That commercial juggernaut outstripped other vehicles on Porter’s road to success that were nonetheless noteworthy. His gospel-infused baritone was majestic on 2012’s Be Good, where he invigorated a classic acoustic soul jazz template with social commentary as well as affairs of the heart, and the momentum garnered by international tours saw him upgrade from Motéma records to Blue Note (now owned by Universal) as he outgrew the Pizza Express to headline at the Royal
Porter orders a gin and tonic in the elegantly lit bar of The Bloomsbury, and we settle to discuss Take Me To The Alley, the successor to 2013’s platinum-certified Liquid Spirit, a record that has come to embody his substantial change of circumstances. Has this upturn in fortunes brought additional pressure from either himself or his record label?
“No, not for me,” he says sipping his drink. “And I don’t mean to be flippant about the whole thing, but I can only be me. And in this entertainment environment people can change their likes just like that, and another big voice from America or elsewhere can soon replace me. Ultimately, music saves me, and even if Liquid Spirit had sold modestly, say 10,000, I’d still be doing this and I think this new record would have turned out the same way,” Porter asserts. “It sold a million and a half and that still doesn’t move me one way or another. I’m concerned about the integrity of me over the art, over jazz, soul, gospel or whatever genre they wanna put me in. I still consider myself a jazz singer, but beyond genre, tempo or anything I’m thinking what is it I want to sing? Whether it’s brilliant or stupid I want it to be me.”
Speaking in measured tones, his voice deeply resonant without the aid of a microphone, Porter does not come across as disingenuous. Materially, there has been a change since that first interview. He still has his trademark ‘wraparound’ cap, but the baggy fleece and jeans have been swapped for a well-cut grey suit and smart white shirt. There is a decided lack of pretense in his overall manner. When we relocate to the lobby because of the disruption caused by a saxophonist warming up for a dinnertime set, Porter doesn’t show dissent at the disturbance and coolly strides to our new surroundings.
“I still consider myself a jazz singer, but beyond genre, tempo or anything I’m thinking what is it I want to sing? Whether it’s brilliant or stupid I want it to be me”
Take Me To The Alley is for the most part a downtempo offering where love songs take pride of place. While ‘Fan The Flames’ is a rousing resistance anthem that chimes loosely with Water’s signature piece ‘1960 What?’ there are revealing personal tales on which Porter lays bare both past and present preoccupations, such as the Kardashian-era social media excesses of ‘In Fashion’ – “This type of obsession was frowned upon where you drove past people’s houses 15 times a day to find out what they’re wearing. It’s acceptable now, you check on somebody a hundred times a day” – and several examinations of relationships, notably the sharply poignant ‘Consequence Of Love.’
However, the piece that is arguably the most interesting for its choice of personnel is the title track, a fine duet with the singer Alicia Olatuja, wife of the excellent New York-based British bassist Michael, last seen on these shores with Joe Lovano. Olatuja’s voice blends gorgeously with Porter’s, but all technical considerations aside, it is a left-field move. Given his status, a more high-profile guest, certainly from the Universal stable such as Melody Gardot or Lizz Wright, could have been expected.
“I really wanted someone who was gonna be sensitive to my tone and phrasing and somebody who is their own musician. She was like ‘I get you’, so after meeting we just started to harmonise in the next 10 minutes and the tone matched,” says Porter, also bigging up his horn and rhythm section before pausing to tell the waiter he can’t take a call at the moment from Heather Taylor, his UK artist representative, who worked tirelessly to promote him in the days of spare rooms and anonymity.
“I was at the Bill Withers tribute at Carnegie Hall [In October 2015] so there were a lot of big voices in town then. And that performance happened to take place right in the middle of my recording, so it had my attention divided. But, yeah we just said with Alicia, she came to mind and, well, that’s the voice that’s right after all. It’s just the right voice for the song and I don’t think I really need a ‘name’ to carry the song.”
Porter was of course once in Olatuja’s position, namely a very talented independent artist seeking greater exposure. Happy as he is to discuss his commercial rise, my enquiry about his own artistic growth strikes a louder chord. Above all the question of when the former American football player, whose whole engagement with music was decisively shaped by his preacher mother during his formative years in Bakersfield, California prior to work in off-Broadway theatre in the late 1990s, really started to uncover what he felt was his authentic voice.
“I was in a jam session in San Diego just after college, around 1995, and friends of mine came down from Bakersfield. They were in a doo-wop group together. I wasn’t, but I knew the stuff that they did and I knew that they could harmonise very quickly. So we stood out literally on the street corner and just worked something out [he sings a slow groove].
“On top of that I did a lyric. Yeah, it was a profound moment for me because I had been at the jam sessions trying to be the best Eddie Jefferson, trying to fit in with the bebop cats, trying to do the songs that they did, and the point at which all the instruments dropped out and they let me and my friends do our thing… people were like ‘I never heard you like that before’, because I was singing the way my mother taught me to sing. So I thought why don’t I use that thing that my mother gave me, that way that we did it in our house? Let me put that into the way that I approach jazz, and I think that was when I really found my voice. When we sang in church and we sang a ballad it wasn’t… [he scats] it was heartfelt… [he sings ‘Amazing Grace’]. Tone was so important. It wasn’t flashy and showy, you know that thing that happens in the movies in terms of what the black church is, it’s not always like that. It can be and it is like that, but not always.
“The other part of it is in prayer, it’s singing in prayer. So once I brought that style into my singing, well I found out at this jam session it was cool. We dig it. Before that I was ‘skee ska be ya…’ [he scats hard]. I didn’t care whether anybody understood what I was doing. But Eddie Jefferson did it already and there ain’t nobody who can do it better. He did it already; the question is what contribution can I make to this art that’s really mine? A little country gospel blues, sure.”
That one of the oldest forms of black music has affected audiences as it has through Porter’s ascension is testament to the richness of the African-American church tradition that birthed him in the first place. While the intersection of faith, politics and art is epitomised by the relationship between such historic figures as Dr Martin Luther King Jnr, Mahalia Jackson and the Staples singers during the civil rights era, the subject of religion and the betterment of society is still very much close to Porter’s heart. With little prompting he goes on to state that the wider context of Take Me To The Alley was precisely the visit of the current leader of the Catholic church, Pope Francis, to America in autumn 2015, which coincided with the Bill Withers tribute he mentioned, and more pertinently how that connected with his own past.
“Yeah, the Pope was in town and the idea of the song hadn’t yet come to fruition. But being in traffic and hearing the actions of the Pope, he was washing the feet of the prisoners and feeding the hungry and doing quite humble things, it brought me back to the memory – it was already there – of what my mother used to do. She would bring homeless people to our house, give them our clothes, feed the homeless our Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners and we would eat the leftovers after them! It was outrageous at the time. Now it’s a golden thing.
“But I think about it now and I’m glad that she made me a part of that. She was teaching me something. That’s the message. It’s my mother. And I saw the action in the Pope but I don’t wanna give him all the credit, because there’s my mother too and that’s how she rolled. If she got a new car she would pick up homeless people in her new car, urine-soaked homeless people. That’s real; she kept it so real it was scary.”
We are briefly interrupted by a young woman with what sounds like an Eastern European accent who recognises Porter and thanks him for ‘all his music’, a heartfelt, emphatic reminder that his concerts in Russia and the Baltic states have been instrumental in the expansion of his worldwide fanbase. After graciously accepting the compliment, which, interestingly, is not accompanied by the mandatory selfie request, Porter eagerly returns to the theme of music with a message.
“I like to discuss an alternative way to think instead of slamming the door on people. If somebody does something a certain way and you meet their argument with kindness then they might see the extreme nature of their position,” he says authoritatively. “So yeah, the song ‘Fan The Flames’ says ‘Stand up on your seat/With your dirty feet/Raise your fist in the air/Be sweet.’ It’s a homage to non-violent protest, because there are new protests going on, but I think that the most effective way was Dr King and non-violence. There are other protests that did have an effect but for me, when I look at the strength of those teenagers, those kids that pushed the civil rights movement, I think it’s amazing.
“I was looking at the Black Lives Matter campaign from London, Germany and Paris, and I was sad in a way, proud about the protest but sometimes, and it could be the media as well, two or three people will say something stupid that seasons the entire movement. So that’s who I’m talking to. I’m saying ‘stand up on your seat’. I’m with you. Have an uprising! Your feet are dirty because you’ve been walking through the bullshit politicians have been giving you. Raise your fist in the air. You’re mad! But be sweet. The point I’m trying to get across is you don’t have enough guns to fight with the military or the police.”
But the deaths of Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, Errol Garner and Walter Scott have brought into chilling focus the endemic problem of police brutality visited upon blacks in America, a theme that has also been broached by jazz artists as disparate as Terence Blanchard, Marcus Miller and Robert Glasper. You understand the anger, then?
“Without question, it breaks my heart,” Porter laments. “Those lives are real. Young black lives are so disconnected from the mainstream. People don’t care if they learn well, if they’re nutrition is right, or their health is right, they’re so disconnected. People can manouevre throughout the city to their job, their home, their community and not touch those people. They would rather not think about it. After you lock those kids up for 10 years where are they gonna go? All of them can’t disappear, all of them can’t die in jail? So yeah that’s what I’m talking about. And I don’t say everything that I wanna say. I could, but sometimes everything I wanna say is done through voting, and how I live my personal life and how I can contribute. And I think about more than race, because believe me there’s a whole lot of other issues going on.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about our various subscription options, visit: www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe
Listen to the Gregory Porter Influences – Jazz, Soul, Gospel and Grit playlist on Apple Music.