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Gregory Porter: A Jazz Singer with the Organic Flavor
5/29/2013 3:53:16 PM

Charleston Chronicle cultural reporter Hakim Abdul-Ali and Jazz vocalist Gregory Porter pose for a photo after interview at Spoleto Festival USA’s office on Saturday May 25, 2013. Photo: Kate Butler

By Hakim Abdul-Ali 

To describe up and coming jazz vocalist Gregory Porter is to take a step backwards with regards to paying respect to the many giants of jazz, blues, gospel, soul and rhythm and blues music who came before him. He knows what their music was and is all about. 

“The Chronicle” had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Porter on Saturday at the office of Spoleto Festival USA on George Street in scenic downtown Charleston. The interview was spontaneous and lively as Mr. Porter reflected upon all the influences that have played a part in his meteoric musical climb up the jazz charts.

This creatively talented baritone with two acclaimed CDs, “Water” and “Be Good,” to his credit performed his craft on last Friday and Saturday nights at the College of Charleston Cistern Yard before an enthusiastic audience. His concerts blew everyone away with a tidal wave of much deserved admiration.

In talking with Gregory Porter, you can’t help but be aware of how respectful and remindful he is of the past and present musical elders of African-American culture. From Jimmy Cobb to Curtis Mayfield to John Coltrane to Sam Cooke to Ahmad Jamal to Arthur Prysock to Marvin Gaye to Gary Bartz, Mr. Porter was full of praise to them for what they accomplished and encouragement in his development. But more importantly, he was cognizant of what they were saying in their musical book of standards.

Gregory Porter often talked in terms of his music being “organic.” This reporter couldn’t and wouldn’t let him escape a full explanation of what he meant by that term.

He said, “With the music that I do, I’m not the end all or be all of this craft, but I do feel like I’m connected to the source of our original music. I’ve been blessed, brother, to be connected to a source of musical history that will help me in my jazz journey. It’s all ‘organic’ in a powerful way of looking at things with great respect to those who were here before me.” 

Mr. Porter, 41, received a Grammy Award nomination for his 2010 solo album, “Water,” expressed that many of his tunes that he performs, which are penned by him, reflect the things that he sees and feels about life, both joyous and oppressing. Many of these self-penned tunes also show his intense views about mutual racial respect. He spoke highly of Gil Scott-Heron, the late great genius of “jazzoetry” and meaningful rap, and what Gill was doing with his music. 

In a sense, if you listen carefully to the stimulating and incisive expressions of Gregory Porter, you’ll hear an emerging provocative lyrical wordsmith addressing the sentiments of past and present unspoken legions of people, who clamor for respect and dignity. Mr. Porter’s heartrending music oozes subliminal echoes for the listener to reflect positively upon life without becoming mournfully depressed as some entertainers’ music has a tendency to do and portray.

One of his pieces in particular that he performed at the Saturday night concert that I attended was “On My Way to Harlem,” a song that speaks to old Black Harlem’s vanishing presence as the cultural capital of Black America. It’s a real show stopper. 

For the ever-mindful student of our culture, Mr. Porter’s Harlem tune reflects a haunting sense of African-American historical loss due to the ever-spreading gentrification which has taken place in upper Manhattan, Harlem’s physical location. I was born in Harlem, and it has always stood out in my heart, soul and mind as a place of “our-storical” importance and insight. 

He and I both reminisced about the loss of certain cultural arenas that sadly seem to be forgotten by some people. This bearded performer, who wears a signature railroad type cap, now calls Brooklyn, New York, home, where he resides with his wife and their new five-month-old baby. 

Mr. Porter is a free thinking spirit and well-spoken person, who exudes a genuine warmth and sense of being about himself. He’s a big man, but in a way he’s comfortably gentle in his “organic” outlook to life and future.

Porter, a native of Los Angeles, California, grew up in Bakersfield, California, and he deeply was influenced by his late mother, Ruth Thompson, who always encouraged him to sing. The more you listen to him, you could tell that his mom played a critical part in developing who he is until this very day.

When pressed about his mother’s death, he seemed to forget the exact date (in 1994) because she’s still very much in his psyche. Mr. Porter discussed his growing up in the Church of God in Christ denomination and how much music played such an important role in his life.

He was a football scholarship athlete at San Diego State University in California, but a serious injury to his shoulder curtailed his once-promising athletic career. He would sing at some of the local clubs and affairs near his school where he became friends with a man named Kamau Kenyatta, who’d become a dear friend and mentor.

From those early days he went on to the big city lights of Broadway, initially singing in “It Ain’t Nothing But The Blues” for a while. He then went to Denver, Colorado, where he performed in “Nat King Cole & Me: A Musical Healing.”

Mr. Porter’s career was on the rise as he signed, years later, with Motema Music and released his “Water” CD. In many ways, Gregory Porter’s life and purpose is one that has followed a natural destination and maybe, just maybe, that’s why he’s writing, singing and performing from and totally original and organic perspective.

I might add that Mr. Porter’s concert performances were enhanced by his “tight” and stellar band. They included pianist Chip Crawford, drummer Emanuel Harrold, Aaron James on double base and the truly incomparable Yosuke Sato on saxophone. Mr.Sato is a hidden marvel on the sax. Watch out for this cat. He’s that bad. 

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