Rising jazz star has found his voice
Many years ago Gregory Porter played his mother his latest song and she listened and said, “You sound just like Nat King Cole.” If this had happened last week, Porter would have been just as happy as he was that day back when, as a pre-teen in a family of eight, he was trying to get his mother’s attention.
“I was a real mama’s boy,” says the now forty year old Porter who has been one of jazz’s big success stories over the past two or three years and will help Jools Holland kick off the final night party at this year’s Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival. “I was making up songs even then and I’d gone to her with my tape recorder, thinking it would be really cool to do something she liked. And she did like it. I must have been elongating the words or something but when she told me I sounded like Nat King Cole, that was it. I was probably destined to be a singer from then on in.”
Mrs Porter – or the Reverend Porter, as she was to her congregation - wouldn’t have told a lie. She was, says her son, the sort of preacher who told it like it was. Singing in her church and in the churches she took the family round as a guest preacher in Bakersfield, California, the young Gregory heard a lot of different voices and formed the basis of the singing voice he has now – beautifully modulated and mellow but deeply expressive – through listening to the singers he heard on Sundays and through checking out the one his mother had likened him to, Nat King Cole.
“I actually went through a phase, because my father wasn’t around, of imagining that Nat King Cole was my dad,” he says. “I’d look at the album covers and fantasise, then when I played the records, I’d hear this really cool music with great lyrics and like a lot of little boys, I’d want to be just like my dad or at least the dad I was imagining.”
Growing up in Bakersfield, whose population was essentially transplanted from the Deep South, Porter heard a big connection with the gospel-music of the Southern States. Over here we tend to associate the town with artists such as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard who forged the Bakersfield country music sound and as a young black man Porter came up against the uglier side of the Southern States influence around him. But there was a positive side to the richness of experience that his family brought with them to the west coast.
“I’ve never been to prison and I’ve never worked on a chain gang, unless you count having to deal with seven brothers and sisters,” he says injecting an element of levity. “But my uncles have and I can empathise with them being arrested for no reason and my aunts having to go down to the jail to try and get their husbands out. So when I sing Work Song, for example, I can draw on the stories that are in my family. These are not stories that you’ll ever see on television but they’re real stories.”
Putting himself into the character of a song is a crucial part of singing for Porter. It’s something he brings to jazz from his experience in musical theatre. After finishing his college studies in San Diego and having already decided that he was going to give being a professional singer a try, he began sitting in on jam sessions in San Diego’s jazz clubs. A few jazz gigs resulted but the main turning point was when a theatre director happened to hear him singing and invited Porter to audition for a musical theatre piece called Avenue X.
His success at the audition was to mark the beginning of some fifteen years of working in theatre, including a successful Broadway run in It Ain’t Nothing but the Blues, which went on to tour nationally, and his own production, Nat King Cole and Me, which he wrote based on his experience of growing up with an absent father.
Between theatre assignments he continued to develop as a jazz singer, finding work in a way that, he says, he looks back on now and thinks it might seem like he had a plan all along, although that wasn’t the case. Having based himself in New York for some time and found an audience of sorts for his style of jazz, which brings the soul of Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway and socially aware poetry of Langston Hughes alongside the Great American Songbook, around 2004/2005 he decided to concentrate on singing as opposed to musical theatre.
The first sign that he could make this move work came from an unexpected source when, without the generally accepted prerequisite of having an album available, he became an international touring artist.
“I sang quite a lot in a pub called St Nicks at the time,” he says, “and out of the blue I got a letter saying this promoter had organised a twelve-date tour of Russia. Apparently someone from Russia had heard me in the pub and sent word home about me. I thought this was odd because I hadn’t released any records but they don’t care about stuff like that over there. If they like you, they want you.”
Water, his first album for New York-based Motemo Records, followed soon after and caused considerable interest in Europe as well as the US, becoming Jazzwise magazine’s album of the Year for 2011 and earning Porter appearances on Jamie Cullum’s radio show and Jools Holland’s ‘Later with …’ TV series. By the time his second album, Be Good, appeared Gregory had gone beyond cult artist status and when The Herald caught up with him he was in the middle of a hugely successful tour of France.
His Scottish debut with Jools Holland’s Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, where he’ll share the stage with soul queen Ruby Turner, he says, will be a little different from his own shows.
“It’s Jools’ show and he’s the bandleader and what we plan to do is subject to change at any time. I’ll probably be singing two, maybe three of my own songs and the rest will be drawn from the wider jazz and soul repertoire. But whatever happens, it’ll be a soulful experience.”
Gregory Porter appears with Jools Holland at Edinburgh Playhouse on Sunday, July 29. Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival runs from Friday July 20. For further details, log onto www.edinburghjazzfestival.com
From The Herald, July 19, 2012.