Gregory Porter is doing more than
MESSING WITH PERFECTION
says Norman Warwick
His name has become one of the most ubiquitous heard on the jazz tv and radio channels, but his voice is such that he is often invited to perform on more mainstream musical programmes. When he said to Geoffrey Himes of Paste magazine a few weeks ago that …
“I’m reluctant to do things in a conventional way,” confesses singer Gregory Porter (left) and suggested; “that may be why I gravitated to jazz in the first place.”
It also perhaps explained why he, and the world, considers him to be a jazz vocalist and why he is perceived that way by most of the rest of the world.
Nevertheless Porter is able to sell out performing-arts centers on the strength of his rich baritone, his storytelling lyrics and his updating of the ’70s gospel-soul tradition.
This, though, is a good thing, because the unpredictability of his songwriting and his live performances prevent listeners from ever taking for granted what might come next.
“Sometime when I’m writing,” he continued, “there will be an obvious rhyme, a perfect rhyme, but I’ll tell myself, ‘Let me mess with perfection.’ Sometimes when I’m performing, when the audience is expecting the melody line to resolve to a certain note, but I’ll choose a different note.” He demonstrates over the phone from a Manhattan hotel room by singing a line that ends on the one chord, then singing it again so it ends on the five. “I may have a perfect groove, but I’ll mess with that too, letting my voice land on different beats.
Thousands of fans of the familiarity of the mainstream may wonder why Porter should want to mess with perfection, and indeed might even ask whether he has the right to mess with a perfection that has often be created by others.
“I do it to make the audience feel an angst in their bodies. I do it to make myself feel that same angst. It puts a fingerprint on the music that says, ‘Okay, this is who I am.’ I like that. It’s okay to be one perfect flavour of vanilla, but if you mess with that, you come across as just yourself—and the music comes across more as art.”
Porter is even willing to mess with something as seemingly predictable as a Christmas album. For his new release, Christmas Wish, he wrote three new songs for the record and chose several others that dig into the eternal dilemma: How do you enjoy this happiest of holidays when you know there are so many people hungry and hurting in the world? How do you balance the awareness of that truth with the much needed joy and optimism of the day?
“It could have been just a side project,” he admits, “but I decided to use it as a continuation of my work. If I’m going to be writing about Christmas, the songs will be in my voice, songs that speak about charity as well as nostalgia. When I sat down to write, the first words that came up were ‘I wish that I was blind.’ I thought, ‘Is that okay to say? Am I being politically incorrect?’ But the next lines made it okay. “Strange thing to wish for, but I just can’t unsee all this misery.”
“I think I can be forgiven for not wanting to see, to not hear the things that are happening in the world, because it can be painful. But I know I have to look, have to hear. The hope comes through, though, in the lines,” and he starts singing, “Everything is not lost, ‘cause Christmas and New Year is coming on strong.”
“Everything’s Not Lost,” the song Porter is referring to is followed by a remake of a 1966 single release by Stevie Wonder (right). “Someday At Christmas,” which attempts a similar balancing act with couplets like, “Someday at Christmas, we’ll see a land with no hungry children, no empty hand.”
“With Stevie’s song,” Porter told Mr. Himes at Paste, “you don’t remember all the lyrics, because there’s a lot of them, but you remember the message: Someday we’ll do right by the poor and hungry, and someday we’ll have no more war. We put so much puffery and cotton candy around this time of year, but maybe we should be thinking about how we can help other people. Maybe that’s what the holiday season should be about.”
The album’s title track describes a sumptuous Christmas dinner that Porter’s mother once prepared for the family. On the table were “turkey, greens, cornbread and candied yams,” but just when the listener is ready to vicariously sample the dishes, the songwriter pulls the rug out from under us again. Porter’s mother tells the family to box up the food—and the nicest clothes in their closets—so they can give it all away to the homeless and the poorest in the neighbourhood.
“Only after we’d fed them,” Porter remembers, “did we bring the leftovers home and eat those. To the people listening to that song, I’m saying, ‘That’s what you do on Christmas Day. Just when that turkey is a glowing a perfect brown, that’s when you give it away to someone who’s hungry.’ I’m trying to say it can feel good to share some comfort, equality and optimism.
But my optimism isn’t foolish, because I always put the danger in as well. In ‘No Love Dying,’ for example, I say, ‘The death of love is everywhere.’ I recognize the threat, but I insist, ‘There will be no love that’s dying here for me.’ The enemies of freedom and love—war, greed, racism—all those things you thought were dead and gone, that you thought disappeared in the ‘50s–keep rearing their heads, stronger than ever.”
Himes himself makes an inportnat point in this deabate by saying In songs such as these, Porter is trying to resolve a paradox that troubles so many of us: How does one find enough joy and promise in the world to embrace life and try to improve it at the same time that one acknowledges all the suffering and betrayals? Too much of the former yields escapist romanticism; too much of the latter yields self-defeating cynicism. How does one get just the right combination?
The journalist then points out that Porter’s ability to do just that makes him one of the most interesting singer-songwriters in music today. That’s obvious in his five albums of mostly original material, from 2010’s Water to 2020’s All Rise, but it can also be detected in his 2017 tribute to Nat King Cole (left) and in this year’s Christmas Wish. In the realistic but optimistic language of his storytelling and in the reassuring sound of his voice, he encourages us to look at our problems without despairing.
“There really is good and evil in the world,” Porter points out. “Bad things still happen today, but at the same time you need to find a way of holding on to hope. To do that, the songwriter can’t be all dark and preachy. You don’t want people to react, ‘Oh, here he goes again, trying to change my mind.’ You don’t want a sermon, you want an anthem, something that matches a good message with the pleasure of the music.
Marvin Gaye “It’s a subtle balance that you seek. The masters, Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye, (right) could do that. It’s something that blues does—you talk about some difficulty and a way to overcome it. It’s not a music of ‘I’m down and I’m going to stay there.’ It’s a music of ‘I’m down and I’m going to find a way out.’”
Although 52-year-old Porter is obviously steeped in the gospel and soul music of his childhood, jazz is the crucial element that opens the door for a better future. If your music repeats the same way over and over again, it implies that the status quo will be unchanging. But if each repetition of a verse or a chorus arrives with a new variation, it implies that the days ahead may be as amenable to alteration as the music.
Porter is prepared to ignore Drum programs that can create a perfect beat and Pro Tools that find perfect pitch,with everything seemingly sealed in a static state. Jazz encourages improvisation and imperfection, proving that the end doesn’t have to be the same as the beginning.
“It’s always open to moving things around,” he reaffirmed to his interviewer. “The freedom for something to be embellished or changed is important. The structure of what I want to say is what I start with, but within that framework, there’s still freedom to be spontaneous and visceral. It can happen in the studio; you may have one thing prepared and something altogether different happens, and you go with that. Just because you did it that way in the studio doesn’t mean you have to do that on stage. And just because it sounds like something that the band worked out, it could be something that happened in the moment. And if it feels really good in the moment, I’ll do it again.”
As he grew up in Bakersfield, California one of eight children with an absent father, young Gregory got his social conscience from his mother Ruth, a preacher who ministered to the poorest and neediest. He got his love for music from his mother’s record collection, which included soul, gospel and jazz—the three-legged stool that still supports his career.
“I loved ‘70s soul,” he recalls, “that post-civil rights music, all those uplifting, forward-thinking songs. Donny Hathaway was in that place between soul, jazz and gospel. As soon as I heard that voice, I knew it, because it was a sound I was familiar with from my church. It’s a praise and worship style. James Brown, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke (left), Al Green have all been effective in taking that praise music and applying it to secular music.
“Nat ‘King’ Cole was like my daddy as a child. In the absence of my real father, hearing him sing, ‘Pick yourself up and start all over again,’ and all those life-advice songs, felt like someone was talking to me as a father would—and he was doing it through my mama’s records.”
The teenage Porter, tall and brawny, thought he was going to be a professional football player. He was a promising linebacker for San Diego State University, until a rotator-cuff injury as a junior cut short that dream. It was whilst rehabbing that he started sitting in at local jazz clubs. SDSU music professor Kamau Kenyatta recognized Porter’s potential and hooked him up with a Hubert Laws recording session and auditions for musical theater. Soon Porter was on his way with a show called It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues.
“I was always warming up in the theater with Nat ‘King’ Cole songs,” Porter remembers, “and a director said, ‘Those songs are so beautiful; you should do something with them.’ I had already started writing a script about how I had used Nat’s songs as a balm for the wound of my missing father. That turned into the stage show, Nat ‘King’ Cole and Me, a combination of his songs and mine.”
Meanwhile, he was hanging out at Harlem’s St. Nick’s Pub (no longer in existence), where he became part of a vibrant jazz scene. It was there in 2005 that he bonded with pianist Chip Crawford and drummer Emmanuel Harold, the two anchors of his band from that day to this. Even now, when he has the money and prestige to hire whoever he pleases, he prefers the stability of a band with remarkably little turnover.
In his Paste article Mr. Himes observed that this is a rarity in jazz, where most bands are in flux with a constant turnover of musicians. Part of that is economics; it’s difficult for a jazz band to pay enough to ensure that the same players are always available. But part of it too is the ethos of always wanting to try new projects with new collaborators. The latter approach would seem to foster more change and growth, but ironically it often does the opposite. Without sufficient rehearsal and stage time together, new bands don’t have time to learn each other’s tendencies enough to take chances. Members of a band like Porter’s, by contrast, are so comfortable with each other that it’s easier, not harder, to try new things.
“The band is part of my personality,” Porter argues. ‘I have a comfort level with these guys, because they know how I work. They’re willing to listen to the stories and the genesis of each song. Before I step into a recording booth, I want to tell them about my mother and my experiences with her. They’re not just session musicians divorced from the stories. It was never attractive to me to have people coming and going in a band. I like having guests, but when it comes to bringing in someone new to something so intimate, it’s hard.”
Porter’s instinctive resistance as a performer to the conventional next move is typical of jazz, Himes reminds us.. His resistance as a lyricist is less so. Whether sung or rapped, words in jazz songs are often an afterthought, the message more important than the language. For some reason, the same people who expect an instrumentalist to have long years of training and a high standard of excellence believe that anyone can write lyrics.
Jazz has previously had its share of gifted lyricists—Oscar Brown Jr., Bob Dorough, Abbey Lincoln, Dave Frishberg and Jon Hendricks among others—but it’s a skill that has gone out of fashion. That’s why the emergence of Porter (and Cecile McLorin Salvant) has been so heartening. Here, at last, are words handled as skillfully as by the best pop writers.
“Language is important to me,” Porter insists. ‘This is not a criticism of anybody else, but sometimes someone will ask me to sing something, and it’s just a bunch of rhymes thrown together. I have to feel that the words are moving the dial for me emotionally—and for other people. When that happens, I’m never lying to the audience.”
Porter argues that The difference between a sermon and an anthem, is the difference between preaching and storytelling. People resist being preached at, but everyone likes a story.
As an example, he points to his song, “Mr. Holland,” a dramatic monologue, where a Black teenager is thanking his white girlfriend’s father for being cool.
“It’s a protest song about racism,” Porter says, “but it doesn’t seem that way, because you can bounce your head to it and the message is subtle rather than blatant. I’m thanking a man for treating me like a regular guy, which suggests there was a time when I wasn’t treated like a regular guy. Basically, you’re saying, ‘I’m Black and I’m proud,’ without having to say it.”
That’s Porter’s secret: avoiding the expected thing, the perfect thing in your lyrics, your melodies and your rhythms can often lead you to the best thing.