Jazz Aspen June Experience: Gregory Porter
Singer-songwriter Gregory Porter walks a line between honoring musical traditions and pushing jazz into its next era. With his warm baritone and his personal songwriting style, Porter has become one of the leading lights in contemporary jazz.
Porter is back next weekend as the Jazz Aspen June Experience returns to the Benedict Music Tent and as he leads a tribute to the legendary Nat “King” Cole. He’ll be accompanied by his band, by Aspen Music Festival and School students and by guest vocalists Roberta Gambarini and Charenee Wade as they interpret compositions from Great American Songbook long associated with Cole.
The show is based on Cole’s widely acclaimed 2017 album “Nat King Cole and Me,” featuring his interpretations of tracks like “Mona Lisa,” “Pick Yourself Up” and “Ballerina.”
His personal style is apparent even in these classics and has touched something in a growing worldwide audience.
“Having my own personal experiences come into a song, I realized that the personal can become universal,” Porter said during his last stop in Aspen. “In listening to jazz singer-songwriters, I’ve realized that it’s not a narcissistic thing to consider yourself and put yourself into the music.”
The legend of Gregory Porter goes back to a football injury in high school in Southern California in the late 1980s. A hulking linebacker, he’d been on track to play for San Diego State. The injury sent him into music. But it was a long time, he said, before he considered himself a jazz singer.
The breakthrough came on Broadway during his performances in the musical revue “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” in 1999 and 2000.
“Here I am, on the largest theatrical stage, and we’re having some success and people are responding to my performance,” he recalled thinking. “So maybe I’m in the right place. Maybe I’m doing the right thing. But it wasn’t for some time that I realized my jazz career could work, that my original writing could work. It took years of finding confidence and my voice.”
His commercial and critical breakthrough came on his third album, the Grammy-winning 2013 record “Liquid Spirit.” Managing to be both timeless and of its historical moment, the album included high points like the civil-rights-themed “1960 What?” and helped push the jazz vocal tradition forward.
“I think music has to do that in order to stay current,” he said. “I think about that when I’m making my music, but it’s coming about organically. I’m not trying to make any sea changes in the music — I don’t think that I’m that type of artist.”
Porter was touring overseas in 2014 as the protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, took hold. Porter responded with “Fan the Flames,” a righteous call for nonviolent protest that includes the memorable refrain: “Stand up on the seat with your dirty feet/Put your fist in the air, and be sweet.”
Porter said that as he watched the demonstrations and riot-gear-clad police on television, he feared they would turn violent. The melody and lyrics came to him, more or less, fully formed.
“It’s just my response, honoring the sacrifice of nonviolent protest and realizing that’s the most effective form of protest and just thinking about that,” he said. “Because sometimes the energy of the message can be lost by a violent response.”
Porter tours doggedly and has played more than 200 nights annually in recent years. He rarely sits down with songwriting in mind and doesn’t take time off on the road to come up with new material.
“It comes to me, and I count on it to come to me,” he said, adding with a laugh: “Somebody said, ‘This is a very dangerous way to write a record!’”
Porter has used his voice to venture beyond the creative bounds of the sometimes cloistered jazz world, including a memorable collaboration with the English electronic duo Disclosure on its song “Holding On,” which wraps Porter’s booming vocals around an EDM beat (he had previously recorded a more traditional version).
The band heard “1960 What?” on the radio and assumed Porter was a long-dead jazz crooner. When they learned he was, in fact, alive and well and at the top of his game, they brought him to London to collaborate. His creative experience working with Disclosure belies the image of many DJs and producers as simple button-pushers.
“We sat down and wrote the song on a piano, and then they took it away and did their electronic magic to it,” Porter said. “If it’s musical at all on my record, it’s musical on theirs.”
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