- Terelle Jerricks
By Melina Paris
A friend was the one who highly recommended Gregory Porter to me, she does media outreach for the Long Beach Jazz Festival. Knowing of her exposure to talented artists I didn’t hesitate to check him out.
She told me he’s a cross between Donny Hathaway, Bill Withers and Nat King Cole. With the mention of Nat King Cole she piqued my interest to be sure. As a vocalist and a songwriter, Nat King Cole’s music was known for its coolness rather than emotionally pulse driven, and timeless rather than timely. It’s the reason why I think there won’t ever be another Nate King Cole. I had to reassess my thoughts. I was moved to discover how it is Porter reaches the depths of his expressions.
Porter greatest musical influence growing up was Nat King Cole. He masters the same smooth eloquence as Cole on numbers like When Did You Learn and Be Good, from his most recent album of the same name. On other pieces like “1960 What!” from his 2009 album Water, Porter echoes the rage felt preceding the riots of that explosive decade that is still very palpable today. Porter is able to grip the edginess that some of the greatest 60’s and 70’s soul singers had and alternatively deliver emotionally astute even sometimes whimsical messages within his songwriting and singing. Water was nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Grammy, a rare feat for a debut recording. The album also reached the top of the charts iTunes and Amazon in the United Kingdom.
In early 2011, he released his sophomore album, Be Good, and on it he showed off more of his soulful chops. “Be Good” and “In Good Hands” are a must listen. Porter credits Kumau Kenyatta, a renowned composer, saxophonist, and pianist, not to mention, tenured lecturer in the Jazz studies department at the University of California San Diego, for launching on to this trajectory of his career. As a producer of Porter’s debut album, it’s not hard to see why. Ever since Kenyatta and Porter creatively hooked up, doors have continued to open for Porter. It was through Kenyatta that Porter landed the opportunity of performing, “Smile,” on Hubert Laws’ Remembers the Unforgettable Nat King Cole.
Porter has had many serendipitous events like these, as I would later learn during an interview with him before his show at the Mint last month.
RL: So please tell me about the Hubert Laws experience.
GP: I came to the studio to visit my friend and producer for my first album Kumau Kenyatta. Very cool and casually they suggested I sing over the track Smile. It was a major confidence booster to have an artist of that caliber say, “stand next to me and record” If a million people heard it or no one heard it, just that moment in and of itself was a confidence booster.
RL: What was your one man show, Nat King Cole and Me about?
GP: It’s about how I came to Nat’s music in the absence of my father. Initially at the genesis of writing the show I thought it might be more about Nat’s life but I started to flush out my emotions about his music and how I came to it. Even when I would talk to people they would ask me how I came to Nat’s music, saying it’s slightly out of my era. When I would tell that story people seemed to perk up and then it came to me – that’s actually the story; how and why I came to Nat’s music. My mom said I sounded like Nat King Cole when I would sing at like 5 or 6 [years old].
Mr. Porter broke into a song verse; “Once upon a time I had a dream boat, once upon a time I had a love…”
She said “boy, you sound like Nat King Cole and you’re so serious about it.” I was like, who’s Nat King Cole? I remember breaking into her records which we were forbidden to do, playing his and immediately being touched by how fatherly his sound and the album covers were. I had a sophisticated kind of understanding that my father wasn’t around so when she said I did something like somebody I think in a way that was like a little switch. Nat’s music, in a way it sounds kind of strange but if you write it down on paper it sounds like notes from a father to a son; “pretend you’re happy when your blue, smile though your heart is aching”. It really stuck in me and with jazz I heard myself in it and I heard gospel and blues connected to it too.
RL: So you wrote that entire show?
GP: Yes, and another thing, with song writing now I don’t ask, I just do. In trying to get a record deal before I remember people telling me; with your first album it will have to be material that already exists so people are familiar with the songs and are just able to hear your voice. And that’s an approach, I could have done an album of only standards but if you don’t ask anybody and you just kind of, do… I didn’t ask anybody whether I could or should write a musical I just did and then got it produced by a major theater and then I didn’t ask if I should write my songs, I just do it.
RL: Does writing lyrics come easy to you?
GP: For me I write from personal experience so had to live a few broken hearts, I had to live Illusions, I had to live Be Good in order to write and sing them. “Mothers Song” is a tribute to my dear mother who’s not here anymore. In that it comes to me in an organic way, maybe in my subconscious it’s putting itself together before I’m fully conscious of it.
While I was in college and after opportunities were presenting themselves to do music on a professional level and it chose me. No matter what I did; if I followed my degree in city planning or if I was a chef I would be the singing city planner or singing chef.
When I studied city planning I liked the more organic approach to it like “how do cities become what they are. I was more interested in the emotional part of a city.
GP: I think that’s with everything I do… Food is an emotion. It’s an offering of love to your friends and loved ones. How does one interesting, artistic, culturally significant arts district develop in a slightly past its prime interesting area right next to a thriving downtown? I was thinking of it more like that, more emotionally. Anything technical, music and jazz on its face is just lines and dots. For me and musicians I work with, there is that part but it’s secondary, emotion and intention become the most important parts.
RL: So did your mother get you started with singing in church?
GP: Yes. I don’t know how many times I heard in church, “You better use it for God, or he’ll take it away.” With my mother I remember asking her, “Is it ok to sing love songs?” Her reply to me was that God created love and all of the things connected to it so yes, you can sing about anything.”
I thought that was a very hip answer for a minister, I almost expected, “unless you sing in the church it’s the devil’s work.” Basically she was my spiritual leader, my pastor. I think sometimes people feel that my music is kind of spiritual. I have conversations where people tell me that they feel a sense of spirituality in my music even though there may also be talk of life, heartbreak even some sexuality there is a spiritual thing going through it. I look at some of my musical influences like; Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway and Bill Withers and many of them have had some gospel history in their past and sing with conviction and heartfelt intentions and it seems like I believe in what they say.
RL: I understand you like to cook too?
GP: I enjoy making meals for people so much. I used to do that a couple times a week. Once you have people there and you give them food, the conversation will open up and go to these extraordinary places, spiritually, politically – I really enjoy it.
The first kitchen I worked in was for Depak Chopra at his Center for Well Being in San Diego.
RL: How did you start cooking for Depak Chopra?
GP: I started to work in the spa area then there was an opening in the kitchen and I remember auditioning with a dish. Then we had a conversation about food and I talked about my mother and how I came to cooking, that it’s an offering and food is like music for me. I feel like when you’re singing a song you’re putting a plate of good food in front of somebody. That was intriguing to them, because there was the whole spiritual approach, there’s an energy that you put into food.
RL: What did you make for him?
GP: Specifically for him he would have this cabbage soup with habanero chilies. It was ridiculously hot, you’d make it and you wouldn’t taste it.
Actually, I got a chance to sing there in front of Rosa Parks. She was coming to the Center to give a speech and get some treatment as well. When she walked into the building there was a lot of attention and activity around her. I remember thinking, there’s Rosa Parks; someone directly connected to my history and the freedoms I enjoy. (For good reason) They were trying to keep crowds away from her, only Depak should speak to her and higher ups. I was just bold and walked right up to her, I told her I loved her and I just wanted to know what her favorite song was. It was the same one as my mother’s, “Eye’s on the Sparrow” is my song she said. So I knew she was speaking that night and I went to the director of programs and said, “I don’t know when it could be. If it’s before she speaks or it’s just us in the hallway but I want to sing for Rosa Parks.”
Later they came back, said they like the idea and that I could be part of the program. So I ended up singing for Rosa in front of an audience of maybe 1,000 people but there was nobody in the room but me her and God, you know? When she walked into the room I just burst out in tears and started to sing, and they recorded it too. That was heavy. I wasn’t supposed to talk to her but you know when the spirit moves…
My mother use to say Gregory your talent will make room for you at the table with royalty. I felt like I was in the presence of royalty with Rosa Parks.
RL: What are you immediate plans after this tour?
GP: I have dates all over the world but at some point I will block out some time to write for another project. I just signed with Universal; it’s been just a couple weeks. I have some concerts coming up with Wynton Marsalis at the Rose Theater performing his major piece that won the Pulitzer Prize, Blood on the Field’s early next year and I have a concert coming up at the Lincoln Center too.
RL: What prompted your move to Universal?
GP: I had a two record commitment with Motema & then Universal came to me. Everything happens for a reason, Motema was probably perfect for me in that I had the opportunity to do what I wanted to do really without being touched. My first record was something I wanted to be an organic, honest representation of who I am so in that recording the entire band was in one room, we just played the music, no over dubs, just from start to finish the recording. That’s how I wanted it to be and people responded to it, the rawness and honesty of it, not over processed.
RL: You write about emotions eloquently, have you always had a good capacity for expression?
GP: My mother was a poet, I don’t know if that can be passed down but I feel her energy & spirit when I write.
RL: Your bio mentions you’re interested in culture, how does that come into your music and expression?
GP: Very important, I’m writing a song about my Grandparents and how we fit into American Culture, it’s called This American Life. Their story is a completely American story but it’s not one that completely feels good all the time. It has moving from Texas because of racial persecution to California and still, plucking burrows of hate and picking cotton but still thriving and still creating an American life, it’s essentially a blues but it adds the element of American culture. As tragic as some of American history can be it’s happened for some reason, this American story.
RL: So you’re telling a story?
GP: Yeah, when I’m emotionally connected to the music, then I write that story, or find that story in the lexicon of music that exists
RL: When did you first start writing music?
GP: My first serious attempt was with the musical Nat King Cole and Me. Before that I played around with other things but there is where I had to concentrate and have listening ears and receiving feedback from it made it all real.
RL: So in the show was it all you singing?
GP: It was one man driven by me. There was a ten year old boy who played me as a young boy, Eloise Laws, Hubert’s sister, played my mother, she had music that I wrote for her role. My father was represented by my older brother Lloyd who is a professional actor; he had some music as well.
RL: Was it recorded?
GP: It wasn’t recorded but some of the music may find its way into a record here and there. There are some good songs there that should see the light of day.
RL: And you did some other theater too?
GP:Yes, It Ain’t Nuthin but the Blues, I was fortunate to be able to do some blues musicals where I kind of fit perfectly with my gospel approach. That went to Broadway for 11 months and some Shakespeare too, Twelfth Knight, Sir Toby Belch.
RL: Would you do more theater or consider writing something else?
GP: Yes, I have plans for a script about a family story. I learned something with Nat King Cole and Me; the more personal the story the more universal. I was fascinated how my childhood story and how I came to Nat’s music was universal to people who had issues with their father, whether he was in the house or out.
I wrote an apology from him to myself which I never got. But had he said he was sorry to me I may have never written that musical. In a way I’ve turned it around and made it about these gifts that he’s given me in a round-about way. My singing voice he was a singer. So I’m very grateful, in a complicated way. Grateful he’s led me to write this story about his absence.