Thursday 23. April 2015 19:00
60.50, 50.50, 40.50, 30.50
With a voice that can caress or confront, embrace or exhort, Grammy nominee, 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”.
His debut release 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, adds a very special emotional intensity that makes each one of his tracks speak so eloquently.
For the recording of Water, Porter tapped a powerful cadre of strong players, among them the iconic alto sax player James Spaulding (Max Roach, Freddie Hubbard, and Bobby Hutcherson, et al) who plays a featured role on two tracks: “Wisdom” and “Black Nile”. The album 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, 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.”
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. The play 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).