Gregory Porter in the Country
Posted 8/16/2013

The Litchfield Jazz Festival, that annual musical pilgrimage in the hills of Connecticut, delivered powerfully for its 18th edition, held Aug. 9–11.

On the Latin side, Eddie Palmieri’s Latin Jazz Band and the Papo Vázquez Mighty Pirates Troubadours had the audience dancing in their seats.

Artist-in-residence Gary Smulyan belted the crowd with his Baritone Summit, a raucous king-of-all-saxophones cutting contest that featured Smulyan and fellow baritone sax titans Claire Daly, Lauren Sevian and Andrew Hadro.

The Don Braden Quartet with Geri Allen and the Vincent Herring-Eric Alexander Quartet featuring Harold Mabern completed a tour of saxophone dynamics during the festival.

And then there were those artists who brought church to the weekend. There was no denying that gospel influence was in the house when groups like The Orrin Evans Trio or Avery Sharpe Gospel Explosion & Sacred Songs took the stage.

And singer Gregory Porter’s baritone rang pure and true for an adoring audience. It’s a voice that he attributed to the church during a live interview at the festival co-hosted by Smulyan and Frank Alkyer, DownBeat publisher.

GARY SMULYAN: Welcome to the country.

GREGORY PORTER: Well, I come from the country, so …

FRANK ALKYER: So, it’s all good.

ALKYER: Gregory, for those who don’t know you—and I can’t imagine where they’ve been if they don’t—can you give us a sense of your upbringing?

PORTER: I grew up in California—Los Angeles, Calif., and Bakersfield, Calif. Primarily, I did most of my growing up in Bakersfield.

ALKYER: Which is a hub of jazz and r&b and soul …

PORTER: [laughs] I’ll tell you what it is a hub of: Bakersfield is a transplantation of the South. So, gospel blues is what it can be known for. I grew up with a lot of old men who would stomp their feet on the floor and we would sing these old gospel songs.

ALKYER: There’s that Bakersfield gospel sound.

PORTER: Yep, yep. That’s the basis of where I’m coming from vocally. There are a lot of great vocalists, a lot of great musicians and singers, but nobody ever knew them because they were just country preachers, really.

SMULYAN: You were in L.A. for your first six or seven years.

PORTER: Yeah, Mount Calvary Church of God in Christ.

SMULYAN: Do you remember much of the scene when you were young in L.A.? Because you were six when you left.

PORTER: Uh, no. [laughs] But later we would go to L.A. all the time, and I felt just slightly not as cool as everybody in L.A.

SMULYAN: Well, you’re cool now. So, that doesn’t matter.

ALKYER: You were a football player when you were young. You were a sports guy. Was it football during the week and sing on Sunday?

PORTER: My mother was a minister. So we had service Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday again. [laughs] There were two Sundays every week. [audience laughs]

ALKYER: That way nothing could go wrong.

SMULYAN: Definitely not.

PORTER: I can remember going to services with my football uniform on, smelling like grass and musk. It was just part of my childhood, my foundation.

ALKYER: Let’s get right into this. You were an overnight sensation when you were a person about to turn 40.

PORTER: I’m over 40, yeah.

ALKYER: But at the time that Water came out [Motéma, 2010] and got the Grammy nomination, you were just about to turn 40. It took a while to get there.

PORTER: It did. Now I understand why it took a while. No I don’t. Yes I do. [laughter]

It’s not that I wasn’t singing well, but I didn’t have a product. I didn’t have a team behind me. You need a record company, somebody with some money, a manager, somebody with some organization, some clothes. It takes a lot.

SMULYAN: You also have to be ready to deal.

PORTER: You have to be ready, right.

SMULYAN: The whole thing about coming out, and having a record when you’re a kid, 18, 19, as opposed to 35 is a big difference in terms of your emotional readiness to be on the scene like that.

PORTER: Yeah, when you talk about being 19 and not being ready, I was a fool when I was 30. [laughter]

SMULYAN: I’m 57, and I’m still a fool.

ALKYER: Some of us are still sketchy.

PORTER: I did have some life experiences that I could have sung about when I was 19 or 20, but I’ve had some season in my life. I’ve had a broken heart. I remember once I had my heart really broken. [to Smulyan] I was playing with a friend of yours, Gilbert Castellanos, a trumpet player.

SMULYAN: Yeah, sure.

PORTER: And I remember this was like two days after it happened, and he said, “Man, you are singing different. What happened? You are singing different.”

And I said, “She cut me. She cut me bad.” [laughter]

I would sing, “Excuse me while I disappear.” But then, after I had my heart broken, it was, “Excuse me … while I diiisss-aaahhh-peeeaaar.” I let the last [syllable] come out as if it was just air, “peeeaaar.” Augh! You know. So, once you’ve had some life experiences, it can help you in the music. Now, I’m not saying that youth can’t provide you with these things, because that’s life experience as well. You’ve got some crush on some boy. All of these human experiences are valid. I would just say let your raw, human experiences come out in your music.

ALKYER: You are a great songwriter. Where does that come from?

PORTER: I think just coming out of just that thing. There were several things I thought about when I said I wanted to make a record. I just wanted to be myself, be organic. I don’t care about being slick and awesome. Just be me.

My mother said, “Sing with an understanding, and that will be sufficient.” Sometimes you work up in your head, “OK, I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to do the backflip.” Just be you and see what happens.

SMULYAN: That’s great advice for all the [jazz] campers here this week. Just be you. Woah! That’s a beautiful philosophy, if you’re a musician. But you have to figure out who you are.

Be you, but what does that mean? You’ve got to figure all that out, but it’s really great advice in terms of figuring out what my identity is as a musician. What am I trying to say? What am I trying to present? When I play, is it an authentic representation of who I am as a person? That’s a really hard thing to get into.

PORTER: This is what I’ve realized about even this thing right here—this conversation. Records, songs, rehearsals, anything that you can record or step back and look at—that’s a representation of who you are. So, if you get a chance to record your practices, sometimes even record your conversations with your best friends, that’s who you are. That’s who you are.

SMULYAN: And that changes up, the more life experiences that you have. Your voice changes, and your music.

PORTER: Yeah, yeah. Even now, I’m finding out who I am based on the words that I have a desire to write, and the things that I say, the things that I sing and the things that I want to sing.

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Gregory Porter (Photo: Dale Rothenberg)

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