Taking his time

American jazz singer Gregory Porter performs in Tel Aviv next week.

March 15, 2015 11:30
American jazz singer Gregory Porter

American jazz singer Gregory Porter. (photo credit: PR)

These days, when advanced technology makes the recording of CDs so much simpler and affordable than in years gone by, the temptation must always be there for budding musicians to set out their stall some time before they really have something of substance to offer. But Gregory Porter could not be accused of jumping the gun.

The 43-year-old American jazz vocalist, who will perform at the Opera House in Tel Aviv next Friday (10 p.m.) with his quintet, only got around to putting his debut release out five years ago. There have been two more since.

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In fact, it wasn’t as if Porter wouldn’t have liked to put something out beforehand, but circumstances conspired to keep him waiting.

“I tried to get a recording and get something to the public when I was about 25 and then 30, but I was having trouble finding the right musical environment and finding the people who would play the music for the songs I wanted to sing and people who would back me financially and other stuff,” he recalls. “I was letting it be known that I wanted to get an album done.”

But he got there in the end.

“I finally found my way, thank God, at the age of 38,” says the Californian. “And I have traveled the world to perform, from the States to Germany and all over.

In fact, the first place I played abroad was Russia, and they were sure I had at least 10 albums out, when I was actually just selling a demo CD when I was over there.”

In retrospect, however, Porter says he does not regret hanging on for a while and that he feels that the life experience and emotional input he accumulated in the interim only served to enhance his art.

“It took me some time and seasoning, and I had to go through some things. I had some pain and broken hearts, and I experienced racism – all these things that develop character, and maybe even some calluses, which can help you develop as a musician,” he says.

For Porter, doing his thing on stage or in a recording studio is about far more than getting the notes, rhythm and harmonies right.

“I don’t think I’m changing the world with my music, but I do want to say something that generally makes people think or love or think about opening up their heart in some way,” he says.

Porter certainly possesses the necessary vocal prowess to evoke emotions from his audiences. His rich baritone exudes power and velvety textures in equal measures.

The Californian has not only been wowing his audiences wherever he goes, but the music establishment has also sat up and taken notice. The title track from his 2012 album Be Good was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Traditional R&B Performance category, and his latest release, Liquid Category, which came out in 2013, brought Porter a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album last year.

That’s not bad for someone who grew up in trying socioeconomic conditions, as his single-parent mother struggled to care for him and his seven siblings. Porter’s mother was also responsible for setting her son on the path to his line of work.

“She was a minister in a church, and she encouraged me to sing, and that helped to bring me out of my shyness,” he recalls. “I was painfully shy as a child for a long time, and the place I felt comfortable was on the stage. She always encouraged me to get up in front of people and just do my thing.”

Porter found that comfort zone at a very early age.

“I was five years old when I sang my first solo on stage,” he says. “I, of course, felt the power of music to excite.”

Mrs. Porter helped her young son along in all kinds of ways.

“She was a very open person and was always helping people, and that is very inspiring. She had no fear,” he marvels.

She also passed on some of her musical preferences to hi.

“My mother liked Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald and, of course, she always played gospel music of people like Mahalia Jackson and all the great gospel singers,” explains Porter, adding that, as the seventh of eight children, he also came under the sway of his older siblings. “They would listen to the current r&b and pop songs of the day, people like Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder and all that stuff. There was a lot of music in the house.”

Porter not only sounds good, but he also looks the part. He has gained a reputation for being one of the snappiest dressers in the industry, always wearing sharp suits. His sartorially elegant appearance is topped by a cap with balaclavalike extensions that wrap around his ears and under his chin. It is not known why Porter performs with his modified head covering, but he says he began upgrading his professional attire around eight years ago.

“I spend so much time on the road, and I started mixing and matching clothes and finding stuff in stores in different places, and the style sort of developed from that,” he explains.

If for any reason Porter’s musical career ran aground, he could always make it as a stylist or fashion designer. Not that his career is showing any signs of flagging. His singular delivery of his own material and jazz standards and his seamless genre border-hopping clearly appeal to audiences of various tastes and from different cultures.

Porter will be coming to Tel Aviv with longtime friend and colleague pianist Chip Crawford, with Aaron James on bass, Emanuel Harrold on drums and Lakecia Benjamin on saxophone.

Porter feels that having accrued time on the stage and on the road helps the creative process along.

“Chip and I have been friends for some time, so he knows not just my music but he also knows me as a person and what I have experienced,” says the singer. “It makes it easier for me to express myself through the music when I have that comfort zone.”

Porter says he is looking forward to making his first visit here and possibly getting into some local sounds.

“I always tell musicians that they should explore their cultural background. I hear that from [Israeli jazz musicians] Anat and Avishai Cohen, and I got that from my grandparents.

We’ll see what I bring away from Israel,” he says.

For tickets and more information: (03) 692-7777 and www.israel-opera.co.il

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