Hubert Laws Remembers the Unforgettable Nat "King" Cole Jazz, soul, and gospel singer, songwriter, and actor Gregory Porter was born in Los Angeles, California but grew up in Bakersfield, California, where his mother was a minister. As a child, he fell under the spell of his mother's Nat King Cole records, learning to imitate and sing like Cole, but his early aspirations were in sports. He was awarded a football scholarship to attend San Diego State University, but after an injury to his shoulder derailed his sports career, he began performing in local jazz clubs, which is where he met saxophonist, composer, and pianist Kamau Kenyatta. Kenyatta became Porter's mentor, introducing him to flutist Hubert Laws, who featured Porter's vocals on a track on his 1998 album Hubert Laws' Remembers the Unforgettable Nat King Cole. Laws' sister, Eloise Laws, heard Porter during the studio sessions and was impressed with his singing; he helped him get cast as one of the leads in a new musical It Ain't Nothing But the Blues, which eventually enjoyed a run on Broadway. The gates were open for Porter. His debut album, Water, appeared in 2010, and was followed by a second, Be Good, released two years later in 2012. In September of 2013, Porter (accompanied by Airto) appeared on a track from Kentiyah Presents Evolutionary Minded: Furthering the Legacy of Gil Scott-Heron, with M-1, Brian Jackson, Chuck D., Killah Priest, Martin Luther, and others; a week later, he issued his third album, Liquid Spirit, produced by Brian Bacchus.
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Liquid Spirit marks Gregory Porter’s Blue Note Records debut, which arrives on the heels of two critically acclaimed indie label albums that quickly propelled Porter to the upper echelon of contemporary male jazz singers and earned him two GRAMMY nominations. Don Was, President of Blue Note, encouraged Porter to stay true to his artistic vision. “I firmly consider myself a jazz singer but I enjoy blues, southern soul, and gospel,” Porter says, “Those elements make their way inside my music. And I’ve always heard them in jazz.”
The singer retains the same core musicians that accompanied him on his previous two discs – pianist and music director, Chip Crawford, drummer Emanuel Harrold, bassist Aaron James, alto saxophonist Yosuke Sato, and tenor saxophonist Tivon Pennicott. On a few selections, Porter complements that ensemble with trumpeter Curtis Taylor, and organist Glenn Patscha. Producer Brian Bacchus also returns, as well as arranger and associate producer Kamau Kenyatta. Porter describes the making of Liquid Spirit as very organic. “I didn’t say, ‘OK, this is a Blue Note record, let me get a Freddie Hubbard sound,’” Porter explains, “I didn’t have any agenda with this record.”
Porter wields one of the most captivating baritone voices in music today. It emits enormous soul that conveys both the emotions and intellect of any given song without relying on vocal histrionics. In The New York Times, Nate Chinen wrote: “Gregory Porter has most of what you want in a male jazz singer, and maybe a thing or two you didn’t know you wanted.” Jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater praised Porter in the pages of JazzTimes by saying, “We haven’t had a male singer like him in a long time. He’s such a wonderful writer. He’s a story teller.”
Indeed Porter has an amazing gift for writing poignant songs based upon personal experiences with a relatable and emotional immediacy. Even more, his hooky melodies penetrate instantly. Recommencing with the water analogy that characterized his debut disc, Porter sees Liquid Spirit as a logical progression in his burgeoning discography as it touches on some of the same themes, particularly the highs and lows of romance, his childhood, and socio-political observations. More pointedly, he views the title-track, a rousing, hand-clapping gospel-jazz romp, dealing with replenishing “thirsty” listeners with more substantial music, as the flipside to last year’s “Bling Bling,” a blistering song on his previous album Be Good on which the protagonist had so many artistic gifts to give but no one to give them to.
In part, “Liquid Spirit” is based upon Porter’s reflections on new fans, worldwide, who come to him saying, “Where have you been?” or “How come I’ve never heard you before.” “Not saying that I am ‘what is,’ Porter says, “But I think maybe what I’m doing is what people actually want to hear. There are some people who want that liquid spirit – a soulful, thoughtful sound – and they haven’t been getting it.”
Similar sentiments occur on “Musical Genocide” and his riveting take on the Ramsey Lewis-Dobie Gray classic, “The ‘In’ Crowd.” On the former, Crawford hammers a dark rhythmic figure against James’ bluesy bass accompaniment as Porter declares his refusal of accepting the insistent squashing of quality, diverse music and culture by a mainstream in favor of disposable, homogenized pap. The latter showcases Porter sauntering through a finger-popping groove as he croons Billy Page’s lyrics about finally breaking into the big leagues of so-called A-listers. “I did this song in a way of being ironic. I’m so inclusive; I’m so against exclusive groups,” Porter says, again reflecting on his ascending cosmopolitan fame. “Someone asked me recently if I felt like I was in the ‘in crowd’ of jazz. I answered, ‘yes and no.’”
Liquid Spirit contains two other standards – a testifying reading of Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach’s “Lonesome Lover” and a pithy treatment of Sammy Cahn and Julie Styne’s “I Fall In Love Too Easily,” which features Porter alongside Crawford’s gorgeous piano accompaniment and James’ emphatic bass counterpart. “On each record, I try to pull something from the people, who deeply influenced me. [“Lonesome Lover’] is me giving some love to Abbey Lincoln,” Porter explains. Regarding “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” he reveals that it’s just one of those standards that speaks to him on a deeply personal level.