Gregory Porter in the Country
ALKYER: Kamau was a real mentor for you. Could you talk about Kamau Kenyatta [the famed pianist-saxophonist and educator]?
PORTER: Yeah, Kamau had the Detroit style of mentoring a young musician. He didn’t say, “I’m going to be your mentor.” He said, “Let’s go to lunch.” And then, after we had lunch, and my belly was full, he was like, “All right, let’s run through these five tunes. And then let’s listen to some boleros. And then let’s listen to these incredible Mexican singers and these African singers and these Brazilian singers.” And, for a while, “Let’s not listen to singers at all. Let’s listen to horn players, and then let’s listen to the horn players who try to sing.” And that’s where I realized, “Oh, you horn players are just trying to be singers.” [laughter] And that’s where I realized my place in this whole thing. The singers are gods. [laughter] No. No. No.
[Editor’s Note: At this point, Gary Smulyan stands up and begins to leave the stage in mock anger as the crowd laughs.]
PORTER: No, come on back, baby.
AUDIENCE MEMBER QUESTION: You were talking about how your mother was a big part of your musical experience. But I was wondering, who were other artists who influenced you through the whole process?
PORTER: Back to my mother, I used to steal her Nat “King” Cole records, and that music was really dear to me. Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye. I came to their music in a way, I heard a sound, and it sounded like something that I heard in the church. And I heard myself in their voices, in a way. And I was like, “OK, they’re doing something like I do.” Even as a kid, I heard myself in Donny Hathaway and Marvin Gaye and Lou Rawls, believe it or not. As a 7-year-old kid, I was like, “Oh, yeah.” I didn’t sound like Lou Rawls, but he did something that was very gospel, and I was like, “OK, that’s me.” That’s how I was drawn to the music. I didn’t choose the music. It kind of chose me, in a way. I was like, “I’m doing that, too. Let me come and investigate that.”
AUDIENCE MEMBER QUESTION: Hey, Gregory, Ahmed Abdullah [noted trumpeter and educator] here. I agree with you about the singers. I used to work with a singer named Joe Simon, and I found that the women would step over me as I kept my horn in the air to get to Joe Simon. So, I had to learn how to sing, too.
But a question: One of the people I heard you with at a little place in Brooklyn called Sista’s Place was the great saxophonist James Spaulding. Do you ever get an opportunity to work with him?
PORTER: I do. James was on my first record. I thought, “OK, James Spaulding has been on Blue Note record after Blue Note record. He had all of these musical experiences. Sometimes, early on, I would get criticism in my career for sounding a little too church, or a little bit too much soul. And then I’m in rehearsal with James Spaulding, a true jazz man. James said to me, “Gregory, don’t worry about that … it’s all r&b.” So I said, “Hmmmm, I’ll listen to James Spaulding.” You know what I mean? So, James is a gift to music, and I want to work with him more, but I’ve been gone so long. I’ve been in Europe quite a bit. James is my man, a giant in the music and in my heart.
AUDIENCE MEMBER QUESTION: I had the pleasure of seeing you perform in France earlier this year. I was wondering how you adapt to different audiences. Is it different when you are touring in Europe and the people aren’t necessarily understanding all the lyrics?
PORTER: I found that the very first place that accepted me, and was bringing me back, was Russia. I traveled to about 70 cities in Russia. I was touring in Russia seven years ago. Deep, deep, deep in Siberia in these little satellite cities, Kurgan and Tyumen, there’s nothing there but oil and ice. Nothing else. And a few thousand people. And they all come to your concert, and none of ’em speak English. But they all leave with an understanding.
There was an 80-year-old woman who stopped me outside of the concert hall. And she said to me, through an interpreter, one of my Russian musician friends, she said, “I was happy and angry and in love and I felt warm and sexy.” This was an 80-year-old woman! Felt sexy. I was like, “All right, girl!” [laughs]
And so she was saying that to let me know that she understood everything without understanding a word. So, the music has a deeper effect than just the lyric. My mother and my grandmother used to pray all day. That was my first connection to jazz. My grandmother and my mother used to pray … [he hums in the style of a Southern spiritual]. So, then I heard Coltrane do something similar to what my grandmother was doing. I said, “Wait a minute. That’s a weird connection.”
So, those notes, that music. My mother used to sing like that and touched me so deep, it felt like she knew every sin that I had done. She was communicating, without words.
A completely new, in-depth interview with Gregory Porter will be featured on the cover of the October 2013 issue of DownBeat. His new Blue Note recording, Liquid Spirit, comes out Sept. 17.
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