Gregory Porter Moves Past The ‘Gates Of Genres’

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“People talk about music therapy, and I find myself thinking, ‘Wow, that’s what I’m doing, in a lot of ways,’” Porter said.

(Photo: Ami Sioux)

Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.

One theme of All Rise is the power of love, earthly and otherwise, at a time when the world seems especially fragile and vulnerable. Does this album, and your music, serve as an escape or an antidote to harsher realities?

People talk about music therapy, and I find myself thinking, “Wow, that’s what I’m doing, in a lot of ways.” I sing to soothe and give comfort to myself. I’ve done it since I was a little boy. My voice and a greater message have always made me feel better, made me feel like I had something, even with empty pockets.

In college [at University of California San Diego], I was poor. I broke my shoulder and wasn’t able to play football anymore. Whatever things happened, whatever difficulties came up, I always felt, “Well, I’ve always got my music,” even if it was just me and the music. It was not even using it as a way to make money, but as a thing to comfort me.

[When] I started this album, I started to write about our dear president and the kind of space that we’re in right now. The first four or five songs were about something he would do, one day to the next, some slight disrespect, some covert disrespect. I said, “Let me shake this off and go within, and eventually, something about that will find its way out in some more clever poetry.” There are songs that deal with reality, like “Real Truth.” Truth has many different versions.

I needed to come from my place, my home, and talk about these other things that might be on my mind, from a political or social standpoint. It had to come from my perspective, as opposed to just reacting.

I wanted to go back to my normal way, which is observation of the world and what I think about love.

This is your most gospel-oriented record, and even the title, All Rise, could refer to church rituals or a spiritual direction. But it could also refer to a public declaration, as might happen in a courtroom or a political context.

Yes, it’s something that could happen in a public space or when some dignified person comes into the room. But I’m using it [to say] that all of us rise, not just a singular important person, but a roomful of important people [laughs]. We all ascend—the whole family.

Everybody has an expression. Children do. Broken people have something to say that can be deeper and more insightful than a college professor. A crackhead who has been there has some wisdom that can be gleaned. Maybe that’s idealistic and foolish, but I think that way.

It’s funny. I sang “The ‘In’ Crowd” on one of my records [Liquid Spirit], kind of in jest. I go on these television shows around the world and they asked me to do that song. They missed the point of why I did it. At the very end of the song, it’s like I’m on the outside looking in.

I think about mutual respect and equality. Whether it comes out in every note or every song, the same themes keep coming out of me as I write. There’s a continuity to my thought processes, however simple.

The brevity of the blues is interesting to me, and subtlety and nuance and irony, sometimes. Sometimes it’s not afforded you if you have a big voice and a big sound and you’re a big person. Sometimes it’s not afforded you if you’re black. But I try to take advantage of all of the things that exist for any writer. I think there’s a wisdom in brevity.

Your songwriting does embrace brevity, focusing on simple yet powerful phrases and also on repetition. I take it you’re not afraid of repetition, are you?

First of all, my family doesn’t have a long, deep tradition in jazz. We have a long and deep tradition in gospel music and the church. [Porter’s mother was a preacher.] Sometimes, the repetition is not for ease. It’s for the build. It’s for concentration. And as we use it in jazz, it’s to set the framework and then to slightly step out of the framework. You repeat the phrase, but it will be slightly different—or you’re singing it a third below or above.

But repetition [also involves] sending the message home, leaving the listener with something. The song has washed over them. And there’s something to even vagueness, leaving it open to the listener’s interpretation, but with a strong understanding that there’s an emotional depth to it, so people think, “I have to figure that out. What are you saying?”

I like it when people stop me on the street and say, “What are you saying?” or, “What did that girl do?” You understand what I’m saying? “That girl did something to you. She broke your heart. You didn’t say it, but I can hear it.”

I’m not afraid of repetition. ... It’s a tradition of both blues and gospel. I think about these traditions and how they grew up in the same house and were played by the same people, the same families. In my household, I heard gospel and blues, and I could hear the cross-pollination.

When I was in church and I sang, and I finally got to hear a taste of jazz, I thought, “I’ve been doing this my whole life, singing the phrase and then deviating from that phrase, changing the rhythm, singing in front of the beat and then behind the beat.” That’s something we played with. I was singing jazz before I knew what jazz was.

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