Saturday, June 14, 2014

Musical Narratives and Streams: Interview with Gregory Porter

Gregory Porter (Photo by John Watson)

Gregory Porter has been called the new voice of jazz, and his velvet-rich baritone yields no argument. Since arriving on the scene just five years ago, the 42-year-old California-born, New York-based vocalist, songwriter and actor has become the darling of the international jazz scene. This year, he plays Newport followed by a much-anticipated appearance at this year’s TD Toronto Jazz Festival on June 20. His Toronto concert is being hosted by local radio station, JazzFm91, which has been giving Porter ample air-play even before his heady win at this year’s Grammys for best jazz vocal album. A former football scholarship student at San Diego State University, the 6’4” 255-pound singer fell into music after a freshman shoulder injury sidelined his athletic career. The music came naturally enough. The son of a minister, Porter started singing as a child. His influences while growing up included Danny Hathaway and others in his mother’s record collection. Porter eventually created a musical about his relationship to the music of his youth in 2004’s Nat King Cole and Me  A Musical Healing, a theatrical production in which he wrote his own music as well as acted. Since then, he has focused on music full-time, putting out three records: 2010’s Water, 2012’s Be Good and 2013’s Liquid Spirit. He plans to work with orchestras next, Porter said in a recent interview from his Brooklyn home in which he talked about the all-inclusive embrace of jazz and the evolution of the love song. Here’s more of that conversation.

dk: You've been called a late bloomer but I'm not sure that is a fair categorization because you've been singing from a young age, haven’t you?

gp: People say that because that’s when they discovered you. But it is a fair categorization of my career based on my recording history, in terms of something people can have access to, which would make me a late bloomer. But I have been singing since I was young. My mother was a minister, and I’ve singing since I was four or five. But in front of the public on a large scale? That's just been the last five years.

dk: How are you finding your new-found exposure?

gp: At this stage of my life I am comfortable with who I am and what I am trying to get across to an audience. I am not trying to rewrite the book of music. I'm just trying to be me, and trying to access my emotions and things that strike people's hearts. Music, I've always loved. It's always been a part of me.

dk: I'm interested in you saying you're not trying to rewrite the book of music, because, unusually for an American jazz vocalist, you tend to eschew the American song book and write your own pieces. Why is that?

Gregory Porter performing in 2013 (Photo: D. Balmat)
gp: I am very much appreciative of the American song book or for that matter the international song book of jazz. But, you know, there are certain things that you want to say, and get off your chest. And I think that in jazz it is important to keep the conversation current, including even expressions of love. The way people expressed themselves about love in the 1950s was beautiful and poetic, you know [breaks into song] “I see the sun in your eyes/It smells like daffodils...” I love that. But it’s now all so different. It’s not the way people speak today, and so if I’m singing a song about a broken heart, then the illusion is more, “‘I’ve been searching every corner of my room...” People can grasp onto this more modern way of speaking, this more modern type of poetry. They can understand it better, and internalize it a little faster than they can the type of poetry from the past. But I don’t speak like everyone else speaks.

dk: What do you mean?

gp: I mean like pop singers. I don’t have the pop voice, you know, "Yo girl, show me your ass." That’s not the kind of lyric I’m after. I’m trying to make a jazz lyric. You know what I’m saying?

dk: Yes, and I appreciate it. I love the narratives in your songs. Which brings me to ask about the social-political commentary embedded in your music. Could you also address that?

gp: Yes, and that’s the history of the music as well. It’s not hard for me to find in the lyrics of the music and in the approach of Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Abbey Lincoln, Carmen McRae, definitely Nina Simone, this conversation of mutual respect, human rights, and fairness and justice. That’s the narrative of jazz, the human experience. It’s why I was so attracted to jazz because with jazz you can say anything –love of your mother, love of your country, land, neighbourhood – all of that. There’s a history behind it. But what I like to do is hide the message. The lyric might be about love. But the combustion behind it is, really, the love of people. My song,

dk: Can you give an example?

gp: "No Love Dying" is a romantic song. But I was thinking about these teenagers who live a few blocks away from me here in Brooklyn who have this hopelessness about them, thinking already, at 19, they’re supposed to just live a life of violence and die young. I’m like, you know, that’s crazy thinking. So sometimes there is more political meaning behind a lyric that, on the surface, might appear saccharine, like in that song.

dk: What are you saying, exactly?

gp: I think the conversation of politics and of mutual respect is something that should be in the music. It should take a stand. Someone said of my song, "When Love Was King," on my last record, that there’s no politics in it. But I listen to that lyric, “There was once a kingdom far, far away, and love was the rule of the day,” and I’m suggesting that this society is not considering hungry children, is not considering the poor, not considering people who are coming to a country to work by way of illegal immigration. All of those things are contained in that song, and that’s a whole bunch of politics. So the idea that is no politics in this record is not true. It’s even in the title track, "Liquid Spirit." It’s hidden as well, but it’s there.

dk: You said earlier that you were attracted to jazz. But your influences are so varied: soul, funk, the 1970s, Marvin Gaye. So how did you end up in jazz? You really could have gone anywhere in music, don’t you think?

gp: Yesterday I did a recording session for Motown gospel, and, yeah, I could have gone there, too. They were like, so when are you going to do your gospel album? But how did I come to jazz? I think I answered that, in a way. Modern r&b and modern soul can be limited in terms of vocabulary in terms of conversation. Hey, listen. I love sexy songs and physical descriptions of the human anatomy just like the next person. But there’s more. I like the idea that love of rain and raindrops, can inspire a conversation, as well.

dk: We started off talking about you being a so-called late bloomer, but for a beginner, boy, are you ever sweeping up. Since arriving on the scene with your first album five years ago, you’ve accumulated a slew of Grammy nominations and then earlier this year, you won the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album for 2013’s, Liquid Spirit, your third record. How gratifying is it for you to get this recognition from your peers?

gp: I think it’s extraordinary. You know, I’ll be having a performance with Herbie Hancock in a month, I think, at the Hollywood Bowl, and recently I was in Osaka, Japan, for International Jazz Day. I don’t want to say I am on a first-name basis with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, but when I was in their presence they were, like, hey Gregory. They were conscious of who I am, and I’m like, what? These are people I’ve been listening to for the entirety of my life, and admired. So to have a place at the table of this music, or just music period, because I’ve also had conversations with Gil Scott-Heron and Erykah Badu, very interesting people, very prominent people in music, and they also know my music, which blows my mind. Because I am still quite humble, and I still think quite small. I think of this music, in a way, of existing in my bedroom, or in a coffee shop. How it found its way to a greater place, I don’t know.

dk: You’ve had other conversations, of course, with people who are not in the here and now. With Nat King Cole for instance, whom you never met but went on to make a musical about. Could you talk about that?

gp: As a child, at the age of five or six, I was imagining Nat King Cole as my father. Listening to those records, which belonged to my mother, and internalizing that music, internalizing “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again,” internalizing, “Smile, until your heart is breaking,” and taking it in as fatherly advice, and, like little boys would do, thinking of Nat King Cole as my father as I looked at the album covers. That’s a true story. When I was trying to pitch the musical, trying to get it into a theatre, I remember the artistic director I was talking to about it, and he said, “Oh, what a clever idea.” And I had to let him know, “It’s not a clever idea. This is how it went down. I used to imagine Nat King Cole as my father in the absence of my real father.” So that’s another example, to me, of the power of music. Yes it’s dots and lines on paper. But it’s also emotion which moves people, for sure.

dk: A little bit more about your family. You are one of seven siblings?

gp: No, one of eight. There’s five boys and three girls. I have a brother here in New York, but the rest of my family is still in California.

dk: And dad was not around at all?

gp: No dad was not around. Not for me.

dk: Has he resurfaced?

gp: No, he passed away. And actually the musical was a way for me to write an apology from him. I did it on stage, but it felt completely real. There was this heavy thing that was in my heart and it lifted after the production was done. So it was a piece of entertainment, a musical for the theatre to run for that season of 2004/5. But it was also this cathartic, emotionally cleansing experience for me, as well.

dk: What will you be presenting next week to the International Toronto Jazz Festival?

gp: A little from all three records, primarily Be Good and Liquid Spirit. People don’t usually let me off stage without me singing "1960 What?" or "On My Way To Harlem," some of the stronger tunes.

dk: And will you be backed by your usual band?

gp: Yes, I am honoured to be still working with my band, with Chip Crawford on piano, Aaron James on bass, Emanuel Harrold on drums and Yosuke Sato on saxophone.

dk: What’s next on the horizon for you?

gp: I have a substantial touring schedule for the rest of the year, and into next year as well. But at the beginning of next year I will be considering starting a new record. I’m already writing. So whenever the opportunity comes to start a recording I’ll be doing that. I’ll be working with orchestras for the next one.

dk: How do you pace yourself?

gp: I recover well.

dk: Is that your football background?

gp: I have no idea. It’s probably more the genetics from all the preachers in my family. They do a bunch of screaming and then they have to recover from the services they give. But no show is ever alike for me. Every show is different because the audience is different. Audiences have their own personality. Sometimes I tailor a show for the characteristics of the people in front of me. But I don’t want to say it’s just about the audience. It’s also the energy in a room.

 Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

No comments:

Post a Comment