Gregory Porter Biography

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Name: Gregory Porter
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Published/Updated: 25 Aug 2010, 18:20

Biography: Gregory Porter was born in Los Angeles, raised in Bakersfield, and is now living in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, Gregory Porter has made the world his musical home.

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 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 albums's eleven tracks speak so eloquently.

The album Water 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 album Water 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 album 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 1968 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 album's title track, "Water", 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".

In the short fifteen months since Gregory Porter exploded onto the international music scene with his debut album, Water, he has racked up a continuing stream of accolades and awards. Porter’s Water garnered a ‘Best Jazz Vocal ’ Grammy® nomination (a rare feat for a debut recording), rocketed to #1 on both iTunes and Amazon in the UK, made significant sales inroads and has soared on to be included on an international array of year-end ‘Best Of’ lists for 2010 in several genres. The happy result is that, in less than a year and a half, these successes have created a formidable draw for Porter as an international touring artist.

Porter’s ascending star is viewed most brightly in Europe, especially in the UK, where he has performed on Jamie Cullum’s BBC radio program, on Later with Jools Holland, as a featured guest at the London Jazz Festival and as one of two special guests on Carole King’s 2011 BBC holiday television special. UK’s Jazz Wise magazine named Water the #1 Jazz Album of 2011 (the first time a vocal album has achieved this distinction.). Meanwhile, across the channel in France and Belgium press and radio have showered Porter with incredible accolades, lauding him as the new “Roi of Vocal Jazz,” in both jazz and mainstream press outlets such as L’Express.” As his international reputation continues to grow, "Be Good", the title track from Porter’s sophomore album, was released as an advance single to herald the much-anticipated release.

On Porter's sophomore album, Be Good, which was released on February 14, 2012 on Motéma), Porter has crafted a work that not only meets, but is likely to surpass, the heightened expectations of the jazz and soul audiences eagerly awaiting his follow up to Water. Featuring Porter’s winning combination of “outstanding original songs, erudite lyrics and social comment, top drawer musicianship and improvisation, and a voice to die for” (Jazz Wise), Be Good is a musical compendium of groove-driven delights, ranging from quiet ballads to up-tempo burners, from romantic charmers to powerful, blues-tinged anthems. Be Good finds Porter surrounded by the core of his powerhouse working band, with whom he recorded his Grammy nominated debut, and who have performed with him for over three years now: Chip Crawford on piano, Aaron James on bass, Emanuel Harrold on drums, and Yosuke Sato on alto sax. Under the sure hand of producer Brian Bacchus, Porter and the band rise to new heights on Be Good, which is further fueled by richly emotional horn arrangements by Kamau Kenyatta, who produced Water and who continues to play an important role in Porter’s sound. Kenyatta also performs on one track ("Painted on Canvas") and guest instrumentalists Keyon Harrold on trumpet and Tivon Pennicott on tenor sax are also featured throughout.

Porter tapped the prodigious talents of veteran producer Brian Bacchus for Be Good. Bacchus, whose A&R successes have included Norah Jones' Grammy-winning Come Away with Me, as well as Cassandra Wilson, Gonzo Rubalcaba, The Wild Magnolias, and Joe Lovano's tribute to opera legend Enrico Caruso, Via Caruso, has produced projects for acclaimed jazz artists including Randy Weston, Lizz Wright, Richie Havens, Ronny Jordan, and Patricia Barber. Bachus first met Porter through a mutual friend and the two immediately recognized a shared sensibility, a sense of musical camaraderie that resulted in a strong in-studio collaboration.

"Gregory is the real deal and a revelation in terms of new male jazz singers, but I think that his voice coupled with his songwriting may be the thing that leaves most listeners with their mouths open,” says Bacchus. “There have been many solid singer songwriters coming from under the jazz umbrella of the last 10 years that are mostly brimming with folk and country influences. Gregory is the first that I’m hearing that is squarely coming out of a real classic soul bag (i.e. Bill Withers, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway) as a songwriter, but with both feet firmly planted in jazz’s soil.”

A disarmingly sincere performer, with a groove that never quits, a voice of incredible virtuosity and a seemingly universal appeal as a songwriter, Porter’s lyrics often speak as dreams do, in the languages of image and emotion, communicating thoroughly though not always directly. His objective as a songwriter, he says, is “to create a sincere message about my feelings on love, culture, family and our human joys and pain.” Even in conversation he leans toward the poetic: “Just like the song ‘Painted on Canvas’ says, ‘I’m ‘made of the pigment of paint that is put upon’ …trying to be honest and organic in my colors that I show.” Be Good clearly attains that goal, and also proves to have a wide palette of colors to show.

The album Be Good's opening track, the song mentioned above, masterfully primes the canvas of Porter’s sophomore release. Gentle as a bedtime story-teller, his vocals weave seamlessly in and around the warm tones established by his core band, enhanced by the sparkling threads of Kamau Kenyatta’s tenor sax and Chip Crawford’s impressionistic pianism. "Be Good (Lion's Song)" (the leading single from the album) has been a favorite at Porter’s live shows for some time, here finally making its much anticipated recording debut. The upbeat tribute “On My Way to Harlem” percolates with the vibrant cultural energy of the Harlem renaissance figures that once walked the streets near St. Nick’s Pub, where Porter’s working band came together and where he finally solidified his conviction to record his first record in 2010. “I grew up in California and now I live in Brooklyn,” explains Porter, “but even so, I feel that the spirit of the artists that came out of Harlem – from Duke Ellington to Langston Hughes – has so influenced my work that Harlem is as much a part of me as if I had lived there.”

The soulful spirit of the ‘70s, epitomized by such artists as Lou Rawls and the Chi Lights, echoes forth in style on Porter’s "Real Good Hands", a track that makes it clear that Porter is a complete romantic at heart. On the intriguing ballad, "The Way You Want to Live", a song of dangerous personal choices that he dedicated to Amy Winehouse during a performance at the Blue Note in New York just days after her untimely death, Chip Crawford’s poignant touch on the keyboards is matched by Porter’s fervent delivery. Next up, the band’s unassuming, solid rapport underscores the tenderness of Porter’s lyrics on "When Did You Learn?".

"Imitation of Life", the first of the three tracks on Be Good not written by Porter, is the title track from an Oscar-nominated 1959 film starring Lana Turner and Sandra Dee. Written by Paul Francis Webster and Sammy Fain, who also penned the Academy Award-winning “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing,” and the Johnny Mathis hit, “A Certain Smile, “Imitation of Life” was originally performed by Earl Grant and has seldom since been recorded.

Porter, the youngest of a family of six raised in Bakersfield California by a single mother who was also a minister, offers a show stopping and inspiringly heartfelt tribute to this clearly exceptionally woman in "Mother's Song", emphasizing the extraordinary impact her love and fortitude has upon his life and work. “Our Love” which takes as its theme romantic love that succeeds despite the odds and in spite of naysayers, sustains the albums’s mellow mood until Porter shakes things up completely with the scat-inflected, high energy "Bling Bling". Next, Porter delivers perhaps one of the hottest and grittiest versions ever of Nat Adderly's classic, "Work Song", a hard driving blues and jazz standard that has been recorded by vocalists as disparate as Nina Simone, Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Johnny Rivers. Porter closes the proceedings with an a cappella version of "God Bless the Child", that is as understated as a prayer and as comforting as a lullaby. Read more on User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply.

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