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Interview: Gregory Porter

20th January 2014

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There’s something effortlessly cool and engaging about the man-mountain sat before me, slumped back in a chair, sipping wine in his Shepherd’s Bush hotel bar.

Gregory PorterThat man is Gregory Porter, the man with the best voice in modern jazz, and a man with a hell of a story to tell.

Instantly recognisable because of his trademark “jazz hat”, in person he speaks with a beat, a captivating rhythm that clearly flows through his life – past, present and future.

As a young man with a promising American football career ahead of him, before injury scuppered his chances, and driven down the musical path by his mother on her death bed his is an inspiring story that almost deserves its own movie.

Years of honing his craft sees him in the spotlight at the age of forty. His jazz informed by soul, blues and gospel music, has gained fans in the likes of Jools Holland and Jamie Cullum, and has culminated in his newest release Liquid Spirit.

It is in this ongoing ascendance to the top we meet him on a promotional jaunt to the UK.

“Being a professional footballer seemed like this fantastic but achievable thing but if you wrote on a piece of paper years ago that I would be where I am now, with four Grammy nominations, doing national TV in different markets all over the world, I don’t think I would have believed you. But it has been cool, in a way it has happened slowly, organically in a way that feels natural.”

It is clear that music is a natural state for Porter, from singing along to Nat King Cole records and writing his first jazz song aged just six sound is his life, but without his mother his music would have never made it out to the world.

With a certain glowing pride he says, “This was her last days, she was sitting up and taking oxygen through a machine, the machine was turned right up and she still wasn’t getting enough air. We know she knew. We talked about everything that night, how to buy a house, what to say to your children, all sorts of things we talked about. I wanted to assure her I would be OK, you know, I’m gonna graduate getting city planner job, public personnel management, you know I would work for the city and have a good steady job with insurance and my teeth would be fine and everything. I just wanted to make her feel good before she closed her eyes and left this earth. She surprised with “don’t forget about music.” Music is risky and she said try the risky route.”

That ‘risky route’ has paid off - his profile over here is growing. Our conversation takes place the day after an interview and live-performance on BBC Breakfast, and the rest of the trip involves a ton of interviews for press and radio. The man with the soulful voice is in increasing demand.

With Liquid Spirit, his first on the legendary jazz label Blue Note is his most solid collection yet and looks set to spread his gospel of jazz to a wider audience.

His blend of classic jazz, gospel and soul influences creates an “organic” sound with deep messages that act as a counterfoil to much of the cookie-cutter, polished emptiness of modern “pop”.

“There’s a movement in food to get back to an organic – simpler flavours, like ‘oh that’s what cabbage tastes like’. Unadorned. Yeah, I am adorned with arrangements and music, but my voice is my voice. The many times I step to the microphone, what comes out of my mouth is what goes on the record, it’s not altered, it’s just me.

“In that way if you do that, I think you’ll sound less calculated. I mean I can tell, like “oh wow” that person is going for a certain type of sound, a certain people. I am not really trying to do. Come who will. WHOEVER WILL!”

The common theme of our chat is speaking from the heart, an personal ethos that again stems back to his mother.

“Simple advice she gave me when I was five when I was singing, it has to do with how I hold my body when I sing on stage, you know stand up tall head up. Then she said “sing with an understanding” with the words you are singing. I think that is the deepest advice I have got from anybody.”

The music of Gregory Porter oozes “understanding”, which is why he is touching the souls of an increasing audience.

“I write about the full gambit of human experience, love and pain, politics, because politics is life. It’s not an attempt to have an appeal to a younger audience or a soulful audience, this is just me and I am laying it out there. If it attracts a younger audience and if it attracts the older audience, whoever it attracts I am grateful for it.”

Tracks like the ode to the broken hearted “Be Good”, deep political protest song “1960 What?” and optimistic love dong ‘Hey Laura’ illustrate his deep and wide understanding of the human condition.

His musical mission seems to be one of elevating consciousness, accentuating the positives. The song ‘Musical Genocide’ from the new record acts as a manifesto for positive sound, as Porter tells me: “The music of the seventies, that ‘soul man’ that I am talking about in the bridge, you know Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye – the trajectory was, this way, ‘someday we’ll all be free’, ‘you’re winner’ – it all had a positive trajectory. 

“So that’s what I am talking about. It’s a global message but I am primarily writing for the kids two blocks away from my house who only go with one rhythm, one beat, one style, one sound and believe that is their world. But the spectrum of music, and the spectrum of who we are as a people is wide and to just get caught up in one beat is the genocide of every other beat that’s out there.”

These days Porter is treading his different beat across the globe, and his adventures have led him to some unexpected places of our green and pleasant land. Talking of his tour with Jools Holland he lights-up talking about, of all places, Skegness!

“We did a bunch of different places like Bridlington, from the larger cities to the small cities. Sometimes I go through life as documentary and not looking for the creamiest crème de la crème of places – I enjoy the atmosphere. It’s not something to look at and make fun of it’s just something to experience because Skegness, whatever we think of it, is someone’s number one vacation place, the funnest place they have ever been to, and I dig that and would probably have a bunch of fun there. With the goofy rides and whatever they have there. I had some greasy fish and chips and that was terrible.

“I loved it. I look at it from this point. This seems like a working-class place by the beach. There’s probably too many fat plastic clowns out on the sidewalk but I dug it. I thought it was interesting. I don’t look for the perfectly manicured lawn every I got to a city. Sometimes you wanna go to that rib shack or burger shack that’s like, a little bit fucked up. There’s going to be some humanity there.

“I was like, man, the girls are a little tougher here. I dug it, you know.”

As our chat draws to an end, I have to ask “what’s the deal with the hat”?

“It’s me. It’s my hat, my style, my thing. It’s part of my skin. I do get recognised in airports, if people have only caught a glimpse of me on some late night television show, they are like “I know you, you do something”. They haven’t figured it all out but they know.

“I remember years ago with some of those people who get paid to do it, it was at a vocal competition in New York. They sat me down at a table and were like ‘we’re gonna fix you”. I was like “I don’t really need to be fixed” and they were like “listen to us, we get paid a lot of money for this and we’re giving it you for free.” And I have proven them wrong.”

Liquid Spirit is out now on Blue Note.

Gregory Porter is on tour in the UK in March at the following venues:

O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire - 19th March

The Stables, Milton Keynes - 21st March

Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells - 23rd March

The Apex, Bury Saint Edmunds - 24th March

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