If you have an image of a contemporary male jazz singer, it’s likely one of an urban cat who dresses sharp, talks smooth and plays it cool. Think Kurt Elling. Think Harry Connick Jr. Think, if you’re in the mood for stretching genres, Michael Buble.
Gregory Porter, who will be performing on Saturday at the Library of Congress, has most of that covered. He wears natty ensembles, he’s an engaging conversationalist and, as witness his superb scat singing, he’s a cool performer. But though he lives in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, he’s as down-home as he is downtown. He grew up in Bakersfield, Calif., where Buck Owens and Merle Haggard popularized country music’s great Bakersfield Sound – and young Gregory watched “Hee Haw” every Sunday night, acquiring a taste for singers such as George Jones.
And what of the physical profile this 6-foot-4, 255-pound singer cuts in his ever-present Kangol cap — not one of the racing models endorsed by Samuel L. Jackson, but a mushroom-like Bugatti with flaps that cover his ears and run under his chin? Let’s be honest: Wouldn’t it go better with overalls?
“It’s really no big deal,” said the 42-year-old Porter with a laugh. “When I was growing up, men always had their thing. They had their pipe and apple tobacco, or whatever. This is just my thing, my style.”
As reflected by Porter’s 2014 Grammy for best jazz vocal album (“Liquid Spirit”), which only begins to signify what a hot commodity he is, he makes everything about his style a great fit: the soul influences upon which he seamlessly draws, from Donny Hathaway to Bill Withers; the mix of gospel-propelled clap-alongs, affecting ballads and original message songs, the tight chemistry of his band.
It’s not news that the landscape for male jazz singers is pretty parched. And within the thin ranks of vocalists serving the legacy of Billy Eckstein, Mel Tormé and Joe Williams (and here, we must disqualify Buble as more of a popular vocalist), none has the broad appeal of this powerful and charismatic baritone. “People on the street give me my set lists,” said Porter, whose recent emergence, along with that of Cecile McLorin Salvant, has given jazz a crucial shot in the arm.
When he was signed to Blue Note, the venerated label that launched such legends as Art Blakey, Horace Silver and Wayne Shorter, Porter was concerned he wouldn’t have enough new material. He had been performing nonstop in support of his first two albums, the Grammy-nominated “Water” (2010) and “Be Good” (2012), both released by the independent Motéma label.
Given the industry’s fondness for hedging commercial bets, new Blue Note president Don Was, a veteran musician and producer, might have been expected to ask Porter to record “Liquid Spirit” with A-list players. But Was let his new singer stick with his longtime regulars, including pianist Chip Crawford, bassist Aaron James and drummer Emanuel Harrold.
“None of my guys had names,” said Porter, “but they had deep gospel roots like me and an understanding of where I was coming from. They get me.”
In a small but telling gesture last month at Chicago’s Symphony Center, where Porter opened for — and stole the show from — the highly touted Spring Quartet featuring Jack DeJohnette, Joe Lovano, Esperanza Spalding and Leo Genovese, he didn’t follow the usual walk-off routine during the encore. As the crowd cried for more, he stayed onstage, near the wings, gesturing back to the band.
He inherited his humility from his mother, a minister, who raised him alone. With his father absent from his life, young Gregory found a kind of surrogate dad via his mother’s collection of Nat King Cole records. The calming presence of that one-of-a-kind vocalist was so strong, it led Porter to write and star in “Nat King Cole and Me — A Musical Healing,” a theatrical work in which, oddly enough, his younger brother Lloyd played their father.
Porter played linebacker on scholarship for San Diego State University, but any thoughts of playing pro football were dispelled by a shoulder injury. He planned on attending business school, but his mother convinced him that he should use the God-given talent that made him so happy. “I always sang to myself, and I still do,” he said. “It gives me a sense of peacefulness and comfort.”
He acquired a mentor in San Diego State music faculty member Kamau Kenyatta, whose counsel was as important as his friendship with jazz artists including flutist Hubert Laws (who featured Porter on his 1998 Nat King Cole tribute album). Kenyatta encouraged his young discovery to start performing in local clubs. “He kept saying to me, ‘Don’t get discouraged, keep singing, people might not know your name until you’re 40,’ ’’ said Porter. “Which is pretty close to what happened.”
He made it to New York in 1999 as a cast member of “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues,” a Tony Award-winning musical that stacked more than three dozen songs in tracing the history of the blues. As he reveals on his tender ballads, he is still on intimate terms with Cole. His theatrical interests, spirited commentary (on such themes as cultural expression and identity) and incorporation of blues and gospel also invite comparisons to a Chicago legend, Oscar Brown Jr. And as a songwriter, Porter was inspired by Abbey Lincoln, who developed from a classic jazz singer into a distinctive singer-songwriter.
“I’m drawn to singer-songwriters who tell personal stories,” he said. “And what could be more personal than putting people’s names into your songs, like she did with her great-grandmother Evalina Coffey? The Beatles did that, too. ‘Eleanor Rigby’ reminded me of people my mother looked for, the kind of people who needed to be touched.” (One of the tracks on “Liquid Spirit” is “Hey Laura.”)
Porter was at the recent Grammys Beatles celebration — unfortunately, in the audience. Count on him being onstage, where he belongs, at the next such musical extravaganza.
Sachs is a freelance writer.
will perform on Saturday at the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium, 10 First St. SE. The show is sold out, but a limited number of free rush tickets will be available two hours before the performance. Telephone 202-707-5502 or visit www.loc.gov/concerts.