Gregory Porter is that rare commodity in jazz – a singer who writes most of his own material and isn’t wholly reliant on reheating well-worn jazz standards as a means of musical self-expression. In 2010, Porter’s impressive debut outing for the Motema Music label, ‘Water,’ gained notoriety by garnering the unknown Californian-born singer a Grammy nomination in the ‘Best Jazz Vocal’ category. Now, in early 2012, the personable singer/songwriter from Brooklyn who blurs the boundaries between jazz, gospel and soul, is back with his second long player, ‘Be Good.’
Less esoteric and more accessible than its predecessor, it’s a terrific album and already on SJF’s shortlist for album of the year – and with a bit of luck, perhaps, it should even grab a Grammy this time next year. But evidently Porter isn’t a man who’s motivated by the prospect of awards – rather, he just lives and breathes music, and if he happens to pick up accolades along the way, then that’s just a welcome bonus. He’s appeared on British TV a couple of times recently – on Jools Holland’s famous New Year’s Eve rave up, the ‘Hootenanny,’ and also on a BBC 4 tribute to the legendary singer/songwriter, Carole King. British audiences can catch up with Porter in person soon as he’s due to appear at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival in late April/early May of this year. He recently had a flying promotional visit to London, where SJF’s Chares Waring caught up with the man whose expressive voice and articulate yet soulful songs are the talk of the jazz world…
What’s the story behind your new album, ‘Be Good’?
The entire album is just another organic expression of the music that is within me, leaning in the jazz direction. It’s jazz but I’m influenced by soul, gospel, and R&B. I consider myself wholeheartedly a jazz singer, but I’m just informed by the other genres. They’re artificial lines that I don’t think make any sense really.
How do you think this album compares with your first album, ‘Water,’ which earned you a Grammy nomination?
It did, which was a great surprise. How it compares? It’s a further extension. I would hope it receives some accolades and awards but if it doesn’t that’s okay too: I love just going right to the ears of the people who want to hear the music. If it gets an award, that’s cool. But that’s not what I’m doing it for. I’m not really even trying to have a crossover sound either; I’m just trying to be myself.
One of our favourite tracks at SJF is ‘On My Way to Harlem’ – what was the inspiration behind that song?
Well, the inspiration was coming from my doorstep in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. I was on my way to a gig in Harlem and I was thinking about some of the things that I hear in Harlem. Some people say the rent is getting so high and this thing is closing down, and this Mom and Pop restaurant doesn’t exist any more. It reflects some people’s frustration with cultural change in Harlem – both for the good and the bad – and honours the place by mentioning the names of some of the greats who have contributed to the cultural soil of Harlem.
You mentioned Duke Ellington in the song’s lyrics. Are you a fan of his music?
I’m very much a fan of Duke Ellington’s: you’ve got to be if you care anything about music.
You also mention the writer Langston Hughes. Has he had an influence upon your own work?
Yeah, his blues writing. I love poetry and the blues and when I was just able to read his blues poems that I could basically just sing, it made it just beautiful to me. I remember the first time I got into reading sonnets. I had to piece it all together but right when I started reading those blues poems, I thought okay, all right, I understand this, I feel the rhythm. It was great.
The song is nostalgic by conjuring up echoes of the Harlem of old but it’s also got a contemporary slant as well. I suppose it sums up your work in a way.
Yeah, it’s definitely a look back and a spotlight on the past but moving to the future, and really marrying some of these things: marrying the past with the future, marrying soul and jazz, which are very close cousins. I’m not the first person to do it. Etta Jones, Andy Bey, Carmen McRae…. And I don’t put myself with those names, I’m just saying these are the masters that I look up to.
Did those artists you mention have a strong influence upon your own style?
They come from a musical fabric that includes gospel and they’re all vocalists that come from – including Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway – a place of emotional openness and they cut straight to the matter emotionally. It may be music that they’ve written themselves or if may be music that somebody else has done but when they sing these songs, they put their mark on it and that is what most appeals to me in an artist period: that they go straight to the emotion of the matter.
Unlike a lot of jazz singers you write a lot of your own material rather than rely on standards.
Yeah. Now, I love standards. It’s great writing and I intend to do standards until the day I die but when I have the opportunity to write songs from a personal space and am given an opportunity to have 11, 12, or 13 songs on a CD, I have some things to say too. So I wanted to say my things as well as saying some things that Rodgers and Hart would have me say so I write a lot of my own songs.
How does songwriting work for you, the process of it?
Generally, it will start with a phrase and I’ll build the front part or the back part of that phrase. But a song from my last album, ‘Illusion,’ just kind of wrote itself and it was like a long poem that just flowed together. It was the same way I think for ‘On My Way to Harlem’ – sometimes the melody, the bass line and the lyric will come to me all at one time. Sometimes I work on it a little bit one day and then I’ll come back to it a week later. My process is different. It’s different for every song.
Do you write on a piano?
Yes, it’s a slow process with the piano. When inspiration for the music hits me, the initial thing I use is my cell phone, or a mini recorder, then I can pick out melodies sometimes later on myself or I’ll get with Chip Crawford, my piano player, and we move a lot faster when I work with him. Generally it’ll be all done before I can get down to put it on paper. It’ll just be snippets and sections in my brain and I’ll put it all together and onto paper.