From OffBeat’s 2014 Fest preview coverage …
No male jazz singer has elicited more attention recently than Gregory Porter, who, since his 2010 debut, Water, has consistently been hailed as the best new voice in the genre.
In February—after earning multiple jazz and R&B Grammy nominations over the course of three releases— he snagged the award for best jazz vocal album with Liquid Spirit, his first recording on Blue Note. And while there’s no doubt that Porter’s velvety baritone and evocative songwriting contributed to his meteoric rise, something deeper sets him apart, too. His music is a focused expression of emotion that’s both honest and unfailingly self-aware.
A college-football star turned musical-theater performer, Porter came to jazz relatively late, bringing with him a kind of openness that must have suited his dramatic work. (His best-known theater piece is an autobiographical play about how Nat King Cole’s music filled in some of the emotional blanks left by his absentee dad.) When Porter switched gears to jazz singing, he stuck with the complex personal narratives and deftly pinpointed the themes he wanted to tackle. In the case of Liquid Spirit, those ranged, in Porter’s words, from “mutual respect” to “male vulnerability” to the importance of uplifting others.
“My mother and a number of other people in my family are ministers, so when [the title track to]Liquid Spirit started to develop in my head, it sounded like what I sang when I was five years old,” says the California-raised, Brooklyn-based singer, now 42. “It was straight from my childhood—the feeling, the energy. I think people yearn for that uplifting and wider-thinking song that came in the ’70s,” Porter explains, referencing Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway and Curtis Mayfield. “It’s about brotherhood, political facts, a conversation of wider, upward thinking.”
It’s also frequently about love for Porter, though not necessarily the kind that revolves around flowers and kisses. With complex lyrical themes, Porter draws on not just jazz but what he calls “a family reunion” of genre influences, from blues to gospel and beyond.
“Moments of vulnerability, strength, questioning, wonder—they all are something people want to hear in music, and jazz is a genre that can sometimes separate the brain and the heart,” Porter muses. “I’m trying to put the brain and the heart together.”