On the title song to his 2013 recording Liquid Spirit, which last year won the Grammy for best jazz vocal album , Gregory Porter compresses the remarkable distinction and diversity of his music into a 31/2-minute tent revival.
The lyrics address a sense of soulful need and eventual nourishment sung with churchy hipster reserve and punctuated with righteous hand claps. But the accompanying music, which, like the narrative, was penned by Porter, is all jazz flexibility peppered by Stax-style brass.
It's a complete, sanctifying song with a message Porter has been spreading to global audiences. Throughout the 18 months since the album's release, such gospel-soul smarts have elevated Porter to celebrity status within a jazz world where stardom often translates into commercial concession.
"In the year I've been performing these songs, the messages and ideas I had upon writing them became clearer to me in a way," Porter says. "The poetry for the song Liquid Spirit — 'Un re-route the rivers, Let the dammed water be, There's some people down the way that's thirsty, Let the liquid spirits free' — I remember the feeling and energy I had when writing the song, that I had something to express, something to get out, something to get off my chest, musically.
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"I'm really trying to open up people's spirits and have them open up their own spirits. It's just a release of energy, love and music. It's happened definitely for me. When I perform this song, whether it be at the Berlin Philharmonic, whether it be at Town Hall in New York City or at the Royal Albert Hall, people are clapping their hands and releasing their own musical energy. I don't mean to sound romantic or overly spiritual, but that's the thing."
As a child in a large family in Bakersfield, Calif., sensing the spirits became second nature for Porter. His mother, a minister in the Church of God in Christ, saw to that
"She just encouraged me," he says. "It's an interesting thing. She always worked two jobs, but I don't ever remember her not being around us. She was always a present figure in our lives. There were eight kids — five boys and three girls. So as our main minister and our mother and our provider and our encourager, she was a really extraordinary person. Her encouragement to just sing very much encouraged me. Even today, in my writing, she comes up all the time. She's in Liquid Spirit. She's in the song When Love Was King and in the song Movin' (both from the Liquid Spirit album). She's marked quite well musically."
Plenty of secular inspirations also came into play for Porter, as witnessed by Liquid Spirit's loose-limbed cover of the 1960s Ramsey Lewis hit The In Crowd. In fact, ask him about the giants who helped shape his singing, and Porter's reply is immediate.
"That would be both Nat King Cole and Donny Hathaway," he says. "They had two very different styles, both coming out of emotive expression that probably had some experience developing in church. They struck me as artists. Aside from what they were doing musically, which was deep and profound, their music really grabbed me emotionally
"People talk about the emotion in my jazz. I think that's the way jazz first hit me. It was emotion and not just the lines and dots of the music and not the theory and the intellect, which is all there. But the emotion struck me first."
While fans and critics might view the follow-up to Liquid Spirit as the next logical step in expanding Porter's still-blooming musical profile, the singer and songsmith plans to make sessions for his next album, which should begin in the spring, as stress-free as possible.
"I don't put any pressure on myself," he says. "I'm not trying to match the Grammy win or the reviews or the acceptance of this last record. If it's received the same way as the last record, cool. If it's not, well, I hope to continue to work at this thing and do what I do.
"I am just trying to be an organic musician. I'm not trying to please ears or anything. I just try to make the music, and that's what I will attempt to do naturally."