NEW YORK (AP) — Gregory Porter’s music doesn’t fit neatly into any one category, but that hasn’t stopped the soul-jazz singer from picking up Grammy nominations for his first three albums.
Porter didn’t record his first album as a leader until age 39, but his 2010 debut “Water” was nominated for best jazz vocal album. His original ballad “Real Good Hands” off his 2012 album “Be Good” got a nod for best traditional R&B performance. And his new album “Liquid Spirit” has garnered nominations for both jazz vocal album and traditional R&B performance for the soulful ballad, “Hey Laura,” about a man Porter says “really hasn’t quite figured out that the relationship is over.”
“They accidentally got it right,” Porter laughs about the nominations. “I’m not strategically trying to be in between soul, jazz and gospel. … The people that I’ve been moved by are singers who have a soulful expression no matter what the genre — Nat King Cole, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, Leon Thomas and Andy Bey,” a fellow jazz vocal album Grammy nominee.
Porter cuts a distinctive figure on stage with his trademark “jazz hat,” a black Kangol hat and balaclava, and his imposing 6-foot-4, 255-pound build. His performances also are distinctive because unlike other chart-topping male jazz singers he doesn’t rely on Great American Songbook standards but mostly performs his own songs inspired by personal experiences.
“Gregory is most impressive as a songwriter to me,” his producer Brian Michel Bacchus said. “What’s unique about his approach is that he’s writing out of the best of a ’70s soul bag but presenting it in a straight jazz platform, albeit overly soulful.”
“Liquid Spirit,” his Blue Note label debut, includes original songs about the bright and dark sides of romance, from the upbeat “Wind Song” to the heartache-filled “Water Under Bridges.” As on his other albums, Porter offers socio-political commentary with the song “Musical Genocide,” which protests the suppression of authentic blues, soul and gospel music by an industry that forces artists to perform a more homogenized, commercial style.
A Bakersfield, Calif., native, Porter was encouraged to sing in churches by his mother, a minister who introduced him to her Nat King Cole record collection. Porter found himself imagining Cole as a surrogate for his absent father, a theme he later explored in a musical play he titled “Nat King Cole and Me.”
He entered San Diego State University on a football scholarship, pursuing a degree in city planning. A severe shoulder injury sidelined him during his freshman year at the same time his mother was dying of cancer. He turned to music for solace, joining a campus musical theater group and singing at local jam sessions.
While auditing a jazz class at University of California, San Diego, he found a mentor in faculty member Kamau Kenyatta, who was impressed by his polished sound and encouraged him to pursue a musical career.
“When I think about Gregory’s strengths as a vocalist, the first thing that comes to mind is the richness and beauty of his sound,” said Kenyatta, who produced or co-produced Porter’s three albums. “He can be romantic, subtle and sensitive or virile, powerful, and commanding.”
Kenyatta invited Porter to a Los Angeles studio to watch Hubert Laws record his 1998 Nat King Cole tribute, and the flutist unexpectedly invited him to sing the Charlie Chaplin tune “Smile” on the album. A chance encounter with Laws’ sister, Eloise, who was performing in the Broadway-bound revue “It Ain’t Nothing But the Blues,” led to a role in the cast.
Around 2005, Porter decided to switch his focus from theater to singing. Porter considers himself a jazz singer, but is inspired by the 1970s soul music “that always seemed to be uplifting in a way … like we can go higher, better.” The funky song “Free” on his new album is in that vein — a tale of a working-class black family with the parents struggling to build a better life for their children.
“My mother was constantly fighting for us to stand up straight in a room where the ceiling was constantly coming down on us,” Porter said. “I’m trying to sing something that’s elevating … and hopefully the people listening will be moved in a similar way.”
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