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)

It’s widely acknowledged that gospel is the basis of r&b and a lot of pop music. But we don’t hear enough about it also being part of the seeds of jazz. Why is that, do you think?

Yeah. It’s all over. Yes, there are these sacred songs, but it has to be considered—in particular, with the African American gospel singer. Maybe you have to get away from the Tin Pan Alley songs—but not too far. Maybe you deal with the more original songs, of a Leon Thomas or Abbey Lincoln or Dianne Reeves. There are many voices you could say that are directly connected to spirituality.

Sometimes, the people who are writing about it and thinking about it have no experience in that realm. Unless it’s recorded and put in front of them and shown, maybe they don’t know the connections. But I’ve never separated them. I close my eyes and feel this spirituality in jazz music. Yes, it can be very cerebral and thoughtful, but I’ve always caught the spirit in jazz music. When I sing Wayne Shorter’s “Black Nile,” I feel it that way. I feel it when I sing “Work Song”—I feel it like it’s a gospel song.

Obviously, with the music of Horace Silver or Bobby Timmons, you can make the connection, because that hard-bop sound was directly making a connection to the blues and gospel music. But you look to the singer—the ones who have been classified as jazz singers and ones that have not been—and you hear the gospel music in jazz. What I’m saying is: Listen to Mahalia Jackson and you’ll hear jazz [laughs].

The new album opens with the uplifting song “Concorde.” What was the impetus for that one?

I was on an international flight, coming back home. I had a big, long tour and had done concerts and an important TV show. The song “Concorde” just came to me. I was thinking about the actual plane that flies 60,000 feet in the air, at twice the speed of sound. I need to get home, I need to get to my 6-year-old, as fast as I can. I’m trying to get to the ground as fast as I can—my wife and my son, my family, my coffee shop. These are the things that make my home. No disrespect to being at the Grammys or television shows or these kinds of things, but the coolest reception is when I come [home] and my son runs to the car. That’s dope to me.

A grimmer family saga is described in “Dad Gone Thing,” one of the songs you’ve written about your father—and his absence. Is this an ongoing investigation for you?

I’m still trying to find him. He’s been gone 25 years now, and I’m still trying to find him in some way. When I went to my father’s funeral, person after person would stand up and talk about, “Oh, boy, your daddy could sing,” among other things I didn’t know about him.

He was in the military. I knew he was an extraordinary carpenter. I knew how important the church was to him and what a charismatic, great guy he was to so many people.

He didn’t show me any time or affection or interest. So when I say, “You didn’t teach me a dad gone thing but how to sing,” the very thing that takes me around the world is my voice. In a way, I’m slighting him and then praising him.

Do you have other father-related songs that no one has heard yet?

I’ve written some more. This is an ongoing inquiry. It’s an ongoing conversation. I wrote a whole musical about it—Nat King Cole & Me, the same title as my last record. But the musical was how I came to Nat’s music in the absence of my father. I needed a warm, comforting voice and words of wisdom, and they happened to come from these vinyl [records] from Nat, as opposed to coming from my father.

You can think of it as sad, but it’s beautiful at the same time. He’s a pretty cool guy to latch onto. In my little 5-, 6-, 8-year-old mind, I would imagine him as my father. He looked the part, if you looked at his album covers, sitting by a fire with a sweater on [points to his own sweater, glances at the nearby fireplace and laughs softly].

There is a noticeable production value on this album, maybe more than on your earlier projects.

Yeah, there is more production. But it’s really just letting the songs come organically, trying different things. Sometimes, I would just have a vision in my head of what the song was, and boom—“Let’s get that on wax.” But this time, we would be locked into something for days. I was like, “Let’s flip that rhythm around.” I walked over to the bass marimba and said, “Let’s put that on ‘Merchants Of Paradise’ and see what it sounds like.”

It was in my plan to work with [producer] Troy [Miller], in maybe a bigger way, maybe a bit more produced way. But I’m still there, in the DNA of the music, and the way I do things is still there. There’s no wholesale change.

The songs are more compact, and there is at least one that clocks in under three minutes.

There are a couple. There is the little folk song, “Modern Day Apprentice.” There is this idea of being radio-friendly, which is maybe what you’re thinking about or getting at.

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