With a voice that can caress or confront, embrace or exhort, Gregory Porter exhibits such an incredible degree of vocal mastery that no less a jazz luminary than Wynton Marsalis has gone on record to call him “a fantastic young singer,” which makes the fact that Water (out on May 11 from Motema Music) is his recording debut even more impressive.
A debut release it may be, yet Water flows with a sense of timelessness that reflects the seasoned talents of the giants of blues, gospel and soul that have influenced Porter throughout his career. Some of the singers that Porter cites as influential are familiar – Nat King Cole, Joe Williams and Donny Hathaway – and others – such as the pastor of the church he attended as a child among them – may never realize their impact on his development as an artist. While the work of singers such as Hathaway or Cole obviously helped to shape Porter’s vocal styling, his own world view, as evidenced in his seven original compositions and his striking interpretation of classic songs such as “But Beautiful” and “Skylark,” adds an emotional intensity that makes each of the CD’s eleven tracks speak so eloquently.
For the recording, Porter tapped a powerful cadre of strong players, among them the iconic alto sax player James Spaulding (Max Roach, Freddie Hubbard, and Bobby Hutcherson, et al) who plays a featured role on two tracks: “Wisdom” and “Black Nile.” The CD was produced by saxophonist, pianist and composer Kamau Kenyatta, who Porter refers to as his “best friend.”
In fact, it is Kenyatta who bears much of the responsibility for Porter’s career trajectory, which can be traced back to Porter’s early days singing in small jazz clubs in San Diego. He lived there while at San Diego State University which he attended on a football scholarship, as an outside linebacker, until a shoulder injury sidelined him permanently. Recognizing his talents, Kenyatta – along with saxophonist Daniel Jackson (Ray Charles, Buddy Rich, Art Farmer and more) – nurtured the burgeoning performer, and, as Porter says, “taught him what he needed to know.” Kenyatta invited Porter to visit him in the studio in Los Angeles, where he was producing the flutist Hubert Laws’ Remembers the Unforgettable Nat King Cole. Certainly Kenyatta was aware of Porter’s childhood infatuation with Cole’s music, and certainly he could hear the echoes of Cole’s mellow baritone in Porter’s own voice. What he could not have predicted was that when Laws heard Porter singing along when he was tracking the Charlie Chaplin-penned “Smile,” the flutist would be so impressed with the young singer that he would choose to include a ‘bonus’ track of Porter singing the song on the album.
Just as serendipitous was Laws’ sister, Eloise’s, presence that day in the studio. A highly respected singer and recording artist in her own right, Eloise was about to join the cast of a new musical theater work, “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues.” Although he’d only had minimal theatrical experience to that point (in the Doo Wop musical “Avenue X”), Porter eventually was cast in one of eight lead roles when the play opened in Colorado at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and eventually followed it to Off-Broadway and then Broadway theater, where the NY Times, in its 1999 rave review, mentioned Porter among the show’s “powerhouse line up of singer.” “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” went on to earn both Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations that year.
Although he now says, “I never felt that my career was going to be strictly in the theater,” Porter’s success on stage with “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” paved the way for another theatrical outing and pairing with Eloise Laws. In his semi-autobiographical “Nat King Cole and Me,” he dramatically documented his childhood, which was marked by an absentee father and the joy and pain he heard when listening to his mother’s Nat King Cole records. Apparently, one day, when his mother heard her young son singing along, she remarked that he sounded like Cole. This led to a rich imaginary life where the young Porter actually believed that the legendary crooner was indeed his dad, and that the love songs Cole sang were secretly being sung to him. Porter’s moving “Nat King Cole & Me” ran for two very successful months at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and has since travelled to Houston, TX (without Porter’s involvement.)
The intimacy of Porter’s “Nat King Cole and Me,” revealed a courageous thespian, who bravely shared his life story with his audience, so it’s hardly surprising that many of the songs on Water come also from an emotional place. The CD opens with the ruminative “Illusion,” an exquisite duet between Porter and pianist Chip Crawford, which the singer says was inspired by the pain that will accompany every relationship at one time or another. The song ends with Porter exhaling a quiet sigh – whether it’s one of resignation or acceptance depends, he says, on perspective. “Love makes us all crazy,” he says. “Pretty,” a soulful tribute to a woman from Porter’s past, is an understated ensemble piece that is bolstered by the alto sax work of Yoske Sato.
“I love coffee,” says Porter, “and ‘Magic Cup’ was written for a beautiful friend who works at my favorite coffee shop.” Percolating with a smooth energy heightened by frenetic sax breaks courtesy of Sato, the song is as rich as a morning cup of French roast. Porter’s effluent baritone does the Hoagie Carmichael/Johnny Mercer standard, “Skylark,” more than justice, while his rendition of Wayne Shorter’s “Black Nile” continues to emphasize the theme of water that runs throughout the CD and features veteran sax player James Spaulding.
Porter contributed the lyrics to “Wisdom,” the melody of which was written by one of his mentors, Daniel Jackson. Spaulding’s saxophone lends a haunting air to the song, which, Porter says in retrospect could very well be about post-Katrina New Orleans. Emphasizing his gospel roots with lyrics that echo the traditional biblical song “Wade in the Water,” Porter metaphorically positions water as an impediment, and wisdom as the means to overcome it. Water’s most overly political song is “1960 What?,” inspired in part by Kamau Kenyatta’s stories of life in Detroit and by the 1963 assassination of Martin Luther King, as well as by his own experiences growing up in Los Angeles.
“I’ve always loved ballads, and ‘But Beautiful’ is one of my favorites,” says Porter of the standard, on which his vocals and Chip Crawford’s piano share center stage. The mournful “Lonely One” paints a lyrical picture of a tragic love story, while the CD’s title track reiterates the artist’s use of water as metaphor for redemption, cleansing, history and survival. Water’s coda is a raw yet soulful Mahalia Jackson-influenced a cappella version of the classic “Feeling Good.”
Born in Los Angeles, raised in Bakersfield, and now living in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, Gregory Porter has made the world his musical home. A frequent guest performer with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Porter also maintains a long-standing residency at Harlem’s venerable St. Nick’s Pub, and performs internationally. “I’ve been to Russia about 17 times,” says Porter. “I now can make a mean borscht.”
Immediately following the May 11 release of Water, Porter will once again return to the stage for a month long run at the Chicago area Northlight Theatre, starring in the world premier of “Low Down Dirty Blues” May 27 – July 3rd. Visit northlight.org for more information.