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)

Not necessarily. The songs still have sophisticated turns and things that a jazz ear would appreciate. But songs are compact, except for “Real Truth,” where you stretch out and include longer solos—including a wild, cool Moog solo by Miller.

I’m thinking of the whole [package]. I think “Revival” is very different from “Merry-Go-Round.” When I think of a modern jazz singer, who has to consider Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole, Sammy Davis Jr. and then Leon Thomas and then go to some other eras—Andy Bey—there are so many layers, and it’s all valid.

The modern jazz singer has so many wonderful choices. He doesn’t always have to [sings a “ting-ting-ta-ting” swing cymbal pattern, sings “This is the end of a beautiful ... .”] That’s beautiful. I want to do that, and I also want to do something that’s spiritually driven. I also want to do something influenced by the electric period of Herbie Hancock.

What did Nat “King” Cole have to draw from? He had what came before him. But we have Louis Armstrong, Nat and everything that came after Nat. So, in addition to that, throw in the gospel influence, the soul influence, and then you’re quite free. If this music is free and open, if we say that jazz means freedom and open expression, then I think there’s room for all of the things that I’m uttering.

Your song “Long List Of Troubles” riffs on the theme of “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” What got you thinking on that?

When I think about the blues and its renewing quality, music has been so important in African American culture. Often, it’s where we tell our troubles. It’s therapy—blues and gospel.

In my church when I was growing up, we had “testimony service,” where members of the congregation stood up and told any story about what they’re going through. A lot of times, it would be about some sorrowful thing. Sometimes, there would be a twist at the end, where they’re saved and they find some help or some resurrection. But sometimes, they didn’t and it was just a bad story. I think, “Man, this is the blues.”

But afterwards, everybody feels better. You sing some congregational song about “Ah, there may be trouble right now, but in the end, it will be all right.” Everybody feels good when there’s a telling of some difficulty that you surmount.

Is that true, in your case?

Yes, in my case, I have a passive-aggressive personality. I think it comes out in my music, too, with all these hidden slights. I have been through a lot of things and, because of music, I have a way to handle it. I even have a way to vent. I even have a way to get revenge.

I’m wondering whether your song “Mister Holland,” about the father of a white high school girl you were courting, is an example of that. Was there a Mr. Holland?

A real Mr. Holland? Well, [I considered the name of keyboardist] Jools Holland, and [he has a] daughter named Rosie Mae. Those are just great names. I happened to be on tour with them when I was working on the song.

But it’s a rewriting of my history. I went to the door and [the man actually said], “Get away from my door, nigger.”

You are in a continuum of artists including Nat, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, who have blended genres. Do you feel a sense of falling in musical succession with historical figures?

I feel it’s firmly part of me. How foolish would it be of me to neglect an enormous part of my tradition, which is gospel music and soul music, and finding out about the experience of the blues and realizing that my gospel expression was so close to it. It would be foolish for me to disrespect any part of that. Somebody called me an r&b singer as a slight one time, and I said, “That’s a hell of a slight. Thank you.” If I did anything as soulful as James Brown, to do anything like Sam Cooke—wow.

Or Al Green. You’re doing something similar to him by delivering messages simultaneously secular and spiritual, maybe sneaking some religion into the mix. Is that the case, from your perspective?

Oh, yeah. It was funny to be in Ibiza. The music of the day there is [sings a techno beat] dance music. Being in front of this crowd of 19- to 25-year-olds, none of the guys have on shirts, all the women are in bikinis, and singing a song that is the synthesis of my mother’s Sunday sermon. They’re getting it.

[Porter channels his mother’s preaching, including phrases similar to those in his song “Liquid Spirit”]: “Reroute the love. Let it flow where I want to go! There are some people down the road that are thirsty. Give them love, too! The people are thirsty because man’s unnatural hand is rearranging the way we’re supposed to be. Watch what happens when the people who haven’t been loved catch wind that there’s love coming down the way!”

It’s so amazing to see them getting it but they don’t even know they’re getting it.

On the deluxe edition of the album, there’s a song titled “You Can Join My Band.” You sing, “My changes and arrangements don’t fit with the modern day/ I sing of love and nobody’s listening.” Do you sometimes feel like an outsider?

I have, at times. I live in Bakersfield [laughs]. I’m from here. That automatically makes you an outsider. I remember so many times, both in California and in New York—sometimes, the jazz stage is a difficult stage to join, to get on. I’ve been dismissed many times. Funny enough, jazz is the most seemingly open, in a way, in terms of age and maybe size. But still, there can be some exclusivity. I remember many a night, just waiting to be the last singer, and still not making it at some jam session.

It seems like you were never one to zero in on what was popular at a given time, to intentionally court success.

I like my career. I like that I got here doing me. Along the way, there have been a ton of ways that people said I couldn’t be, that I had to change. I had to come out singing standards. I had to do this and that—“Dump your band. Get all superstars.” Maybe I’m an underachiever.

I still feel grounded. I still feel like I hear my mother, my family, my people, myself, in the music. I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve put on a record in terms of the content of what I said, and how I will make people feel in 20 years. I haven’t talked about nobody’s ass or titties. And I’ve still sold a bunch of records.

My mother’s there. The truth is there. I like the fact that a song like “Liquid Spirit” is drawn from my mother’s sermon, and it can have [millions of] streams. But it’s not [about] the numbers. Ever since Water, my first record, I just wanted to make music that sounded good and would get my voice out, get my message and musical DNA out, and hopefully the sound would be honest and pleasing to some people. I never expected the Grammys or any of the success that I’ve had.

I’m just blown away, and thankful to the tradition of jazz, and other music. There is a pavement, a road that has already been laid down by some people. And I’m so thankful and amazed that I can go around the world. DB

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