“Free to sing, free to dance, free to let someone take a glance in a world that’s free of me”. Moving by Gregory Porter
FREE. Free is Gregory Porter. Free as the lyrical waves that gush out from his breath; free as the rising notes that fill the heaven’s abyss—no living artist could grasp so deeply and colorfully the eminent shadows that legendary Nat King Cole, Bill Withers, Joe Williams, or even Otis Redding cast over the universe of soul, blues, jazz and R&B as the ever-soulful baritone singer, Gregory Porter.
Japan’s music powerhouses have, indeed, never been so graced brilliantly by such astounding international musicians as in the last five to ten years. Not only have Blue Note Tokyo, Nagoya Blue Note and Cotton Club been Japan’s most sought-after havens for regular live concerts, but also their sister café restaurants, Brooklyn Parlor and Café 104.5, that now glitter central Tokyo with their more casual, more down-to-earth hospitality for trendy dining and light music listening sessions.
Gregory Porter did his first stage appearance at Brooklyn Parlor last September 4, during his September Japan tour. Commencing with No Love Dying, the house broke into still silence with the tender resonance of Gregory’s delivery—a poignant preaching of a painful love lost that need not end in despair.
"The bird that flew in through my window simply lost his way
He broke his wing, I helped him heal, and then he flew away
Well the death of love is everywhere, but I won’t let it be
There will be no love that’s dying here for me."
-No Love Dying
It was exactly this delicate but straightforward lyrical quality of Gregory’s songs that led his audiences to quickly immerse into his gentle breeze of sweet melancholy and upbeat jazzy rhythms during the next day, September 5 at Nagoya Blue Note and September 6 at Blue Note Tokyo.
Gregory Porter: The Japanese audience was very respectful and rather quiet. They were serious listeners. They clap, and when I start a solo, they stop clapping suddenly so they can hear. Somebody said they’d let you know at the end of the show if they like you. The first audience was that way. The second audience was like Detroit, Harlem, unusual for any audience. They wanted to have a good time… very cool. It was like they knew my songs, or were there the last time I came in March for my album Be Good. Now, I’ve come just to do my thing.
Doing his own thing as Gregory had always done, from the moment he was born and raised in California from a religious family, and climbed his way courageously to New York with hardly any musical training in stride except for his rich, deep and empowering vocal chords, Gregory soon spread the buzz around that the new prince of soul and jazz has arrived, ready to lift listeners up from their seats. It took merely less than three years for Gregory to produce three consecutive, energizing albums, and to earn a Grammy nomination for the absolutely tender Be Good.
With his towering built and bubbly smile, Gregory spoke from Universal Music Japan on the concurrent themes of his three albums.
GP: I’ve been doing music from Water, Be Good , and now, Liquid Spirit. There are great artists who haven’t done records in ten years, but you still go see their music based on what it is they want to do, whether it’s a record or not, you just want them to do something. I hope to be one of these artists, whom people see not just to do a record, but also to do whatever.
Carefree and confident as his repertoire is, Gregory has steadily learned to cross over the language barriers when performing before international audiences.
GP: There are several things that goes on with music: the music, melody, words, and sometimes, the instruments, especially for instrumental artists—and for them, they get over that (language barrier) because when you play for an international audience, there is no language, but just emotion. It’s the same with the singer. The barrier can also be more carefully crafted because the emotion is coming from me, from my breath. I believe I’ve been able to communicate well with the Japanese audience. I don’t have a problem with that. I’m sure they can’t understand every word I’m saying, but they see it in my face, in my intention. I feel lucky I can transmit the soulfulness of my lyrics to the audience. I don’t mean to jumble my troubles on the audience, but I do feel lighter sometimes, like it’s a release.
Illusion, from Gregory’s first album, Water, is a cry of sensitivity that evokes rustic honesty without careless trimmings—a blatant message of loss and acceptance that provokes the audience to exhaust an emotion they may not have experienced before.
“I've been checking for the weather and the time
I'm like a bag that's dropped and drifting in the wind
That blows from hurricanes that comes just after grey clouds fill my eyes
…just like clothespins snapped by wild winds
Sometimes you can't hold on to love and never die”
GP: That’s what the blues can do. Every sad song is not so sad. It may be a sad song but it doesn’t have to leave you sad. Songs come from my personal experiences. I do draw from other people’s emotions at times, but most are from things I am feeling. The cool thing about songwriting is you can write about a secret emotion and let it out, or say that it’s somebody else’s thoughts, not mine.
Gregory has always had a genuinely endearing relationship with his mother who cradled his musical curiosity from an early age.
“Listen, and gather round me children, children of a mother whose life lifted up peace
A mother who taught all of her children to love and be loved by each other”
GP: My mother was very powerful in my life. I was a Mama’s boy—I still am—even if she’s passed away. My mother encouraged my music a lot. She sang a lot at home, and had an operatic voice. I wasn’t raised by my father. I didn’t know my father very well, but I heard he had a soulful, gospel voice. My mother was very present in the cultivation of my music. She vocalized and prayed a lot. She would hum all the time, and that’s how I got into jazz.
From his mother to New York, songs like On My Way to Harlem speak of Gregory’s musical upbringing in the realm of soul, jazz, and blues where the spiritual echoes of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, and surely, Nat King Cole, have embraced his musical passion.
GP: I would hear a horn player and think, “Wow, that sounds like my grandmother, grandfather. In the song, On My Way to Harlem, 'my father’s horn' was a metaphor for a culture, my grandmother, grandfather, that I drew from other people’s experiences as I grew up. Music was very important in my home. I had no voice training and didn’t go to music school. I sang gospel music in church, and played around with jazz. I got interested in jazz when I was 5-6 years old, when I first got Nat King Cole’s record. I didn’t know it was jazz. I was only listening, but it affected me in an emotional way. I used to imagine that Nat King Cole was my father… After all, my dad wasn’t around and Nat King Cole was cool. He always looked cool in his album covers. And, he said cool stuff in his records. Initially, he was the largest influence in my life, and still undercurrent. There’s a lot of that “Nat King Coleism” in the way I deliver. And probably, I think the most profound song of his was Nature Boy. It’s a beautiful message song. It’s romantic but it’s not a romantic song. It’s the way he delivers it. There’s no love interest in it. But it makes you think… and it hits you.
This mysterious parallelism between Gregory and the supreme Nat King Cole has been for him, more than a model-to-artist or preacher-to-novice connection—Nat King Cole always carved his innermost longing for a father that he never had, spiritually.
GP: Nat King Cole used to sing about a love lost. The songs were very general, as they were in that era, 50s and 60s. The love wasn’t so specific, but for me, it was perfect because I had a sophisticated understanding of the loss of my father—of him not being around, and not showing interest in me. When Nat was saying, “What will I do, when you are far away, and I’m so blue, what’ll I do… ” That meant something to me… not in a male-female love lost, but it was my father and myself. And, I think I developed interesting thoughts in my brain… the kid’s brain likes to do what it wants to do—you create your own heroes, like I created my own father in Nat King Cole. And, the songs he was singing were specifically tailored for me. I tailored them.
The influences from Nat King Cole, Bill Withers, or Al Green—the interesting thing about all these people is they’ve all had experiences in their youth in the black church. I don’t think of them when I write songs, but they’re definitely an inspiration—all of them as a group float around in my head: Lou Rawls, Joe Williams—that’s what musical culture is. It builds itself. Michael Jackson would absolutely not exist without James Brown. Nor does Prince. Prince has a gang of people he’s influenced. And, Michael has an entirety of all the male pop singers. Jazz is the same way; it’s built of all these artists. And, with myself, being influenced by R&B, soul, and blues… sometimes, I feel I am using some influence from what B.B. King would have done, or John Lee Hooker…
Like many jazz-inspired musicians, Gregory found his protective niche in this genre from a young age, and since then, the passion for it has remained vibrant and undiminished.
GP: After college, that’s when I realized jazz was really my music. I sang jazz in college. Once I started to go to jam sessions, I realized there was a place for me in jazz. I didn’t join a band…there was a pianist sometimes, here and there, but basically just me doing the singing.
Everybody in jazz is wide open. Jazz is improvisation. It’s personal music; charisma, with everybody’s vision. There are some people who want to lock it into something, and make it more understandable, where you could quantify all the values. But, jazz is free music; open music. You take what it is—what each individual wants to say with each instrument. Everybody’s music is not going to fly and rise to the top. And that’s the marketplace. But, every jazz musician has the right to make his own statement.
And, the future of jazz?
GP: I heard somebody say that in every generation jazz is dying. But, it keeps pushing itself. At any time, an artist goes slightly deviating from the traditions of jazz, like Miles Davis. People thought he turned back from jazz. But, he never did. He was just forward thinking. I never turned my back on jazz. I’m a jazz singer. Many people tell me I’m something more different, like soul, blues…I am that. I accept all that. But the basis of where I am is jazz. And, I’m influenced by all those other things. I’m a singer who is heavily and deeply influenced by blues. I think it’s a compliment to be called a blues singer. I think that’s the ultimate. It’s the deepest and most soulful. I’m a family of music borrowing from all the cousins…
Liquid Spirit is Gregory’s new album that resonates the commitment to preserve gospel music, blues, and soul—the flesh and blood of music often overshadowed by glamour and mass popularity:
“Give me a blues song, tell the world what’s wrong
And the gospel singer giving those messages of love
And the soul man with your heart in the palm of his hand”
—of a desire for the nourishment of human spirit:
“Un-reroute the rivers, let the dammed water be
There are some people down the way that’s thirsty
So let the liquid spirit free”
-and, of a love in vain that finds it's way to a hazy reclusion after hurt and hollow rejection:
Is there someone else instead of me,
Go ahead and lie to me and make me believe...
And this fool can see, that the rivers of your love flow uphill to me
- Hey Laura
GP: In Liquid Spirit, the love theme comes back.Illusions comes back again in Hey Laura. That’s a song about somebody who hasn’t gotten over his lost love. He’s in the edge of not yet figuring out that she is gone. “Let the rivers of your love flow uphill.” Rivers don’t flow uphill. She’s gone. There’s somebody else. Hey Laura, it’s me. Sorry I had to ring your door so late.” This song for me is not physically about a man walking up to a girl and ringing her doorbell past 12 midnight. He’s too late in life. She’s already moved on with her own life. It is a sad song. Some of my songs inject optimism, but there is no optimism in this song…maybe for Laura, there is, who thinks, “Finally! He got it!” (laughs). Sad songs are really catharsis. We need them. If we didn’t have them we’d be lying.
It may appear as a slight coincidence to witness the element of water in both of Gregory’s albums, Water and Liquid Spirit. The enigma of water in Gregory's life has not only been the keen cultivation of organic thoughts of "flow," current," "stream," or "pouring," but more essentially, the umbilical connection to his mother who offered him the prime wisdom of water's spiritual elements.
GP: My albums Water and Liquid Spirit are links to my mother. She was a minister. She used to preach a lot about the qualities of water when I was a child. I came to this reality just about six months ago. This is the literation of all those water sermons I got when I was a child—the cleansing, renewing, purification—that all keep coming back to me. And, water, being a metaphor for love, spirit, soul, culture—let it flow, let it flow…actually, it’s an organic concept. Water is organic. That’s kind of the theme of all my three albums—trying to be organic.
“Water pouring down the sidewalks
Cleaning windows... clear to see
Washing gum drops downside gutters
Rusting chains and saving me”
Finally, Gregory addresses the youth today, on how the contemporary approach to music paves the uneven path to determination and creativity.
GP: I do listen to contemporary reggae and rap. The lyrical context of reggae, for example, is very deep…Bob Marley is a real master.
I feel like young people today are all going for the homerun. We all are. I want to be loved, too, just like the next person. But, if the approach to the songwriter is just to be a million seller….that’s just not right. Sometimes, you just need to humble yourself. Write a song and have it sound the way you speak to your mother. You don’t have to be so damn cool. Just say the words, say what you feel. You don’t have to have this deep accent for any reason. Just let it come from the heart. And see what happens. I probably have a different goal from the young artists. My ultimate goal is to feel good for other people, and, for somebody to come to my music with a positive experience. I don’t want to bring anybody down, or cause destruction. That’s the risk in music, to cause damage to somebody who listens to your music. I hope I don’t encounter that, but people would do anything with your music.
... And, if it was anything so enormous, so profound that Gregory's booming voice can touch a million hearts, then there is his irresistible magic.
"You need me near, you need me near
After I have saved you and gathered all the pieces of your heart
That's when it starts
Then you gained your confidence
And leave your innocence and vulnerability with me
Special Thanks to Blue Note Tokyo and Universal Music Japan.