- 14 Sep 20
After a nearly four-year hiatus from original music, jazz legend Gregory Porter is back with a brand new record, 'All Rise', which is as defiant as it is joyous.
Gregory Porter is singing to me. Over Zoom. We’ve been discussing the intersection of spirituality and sexuality in Porter’s music, and although the line he’s giving me is merely for demonstration, it’s the best possible substitute for a concert, in this gigless era of COVID-19.
“Your eyes, they tell the truth of your affection / Your songs are all the ones I long to hear,” rings through my tinny laptop speakers in Porter’s resounding baritone. “I believe in Jesus, and all that he can do / Now, I wanna have a little faith in you.”
Impeccably dressed – in a dapper powder blue jacket, white shirt, and the unique cap that has become synonymous with Porter’s aesthetic, the man who is nearly single-handedly responsible for making jazz cool again is here to discuss his upcoming album, All Rise.
“You know, many a soul singer has straddled that line between the sacred and profane, the romantic love and spiritual love,” he notes. “Since the beginning of my singing in church, that was a forbidden thing to do. To allow these two worlds to cross. I do it lyrically, and in the sound of my voice.
“Sometimes I’m nervous to do it in my lyrics,” he adds mischievously, interrupting himself with an unexpected laugh, which bubbles up like hot coffee and rolls out like thunder. For a brief moment, he looks like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
All Rise feels weightier than Porter’s previous records. It’s joyful, yes. But much closer to a peaceful protest, in the face of America’s current political turmoil. One of the album’s early singles, ‘Mr. Holland’, says it perfectly: dark, tongue-in-cheek, with a colourful tone that is directly juxtaposed by sinister lyrics.
“I’m praising a man for treating me normal,” says Porter of the song. “Which, of course, suggests that maybe there’s another, harder experience that I’ve had – or that a young man or young woman can experience today.
“The idea that you can treat me with respect and I’m expected to celebrate it, and scream it at the top of my lungs in a song as a ‘thank you’...That’s what’s left to be desired in a fight for equality.
“When you go out into the world, be sure not to present yourself as a threat to anyone,” Porter continues, repeating the lesson he was once forced to learn. “I mean, I’ve been six foot tall since I was twelve. I’ve used my voice to put people at ease, constantly. When I was 12 and 13, walking behind somebody – because I didn’t want them to fear me, I’d start singing a sweet song. I used to sing gospel songs. When I got into jazz, I would sing ‘Nature Boy’ and ‘Waltz for Debby’. It’s unfortunate that I had to do that, but I use music as a way to put people at ease.”
Porter was raised in Bakersfield, California. His mother was a nurse and a minister, who always instilled in him the paramount importance of mutual respect. Raised on a steady diet of gospel and jazz, he developed an early love for Nat King Cole – going so far as to record a whole album of King Cole covers in 2017. “When I was a kid and I played ‘Nature Boy’ on vinyl, it was like he was speaking directly to me.”
You could say the same about Porter. Like King Cole, Gregory is a tonic for his time.
“I don’t think anybody wants tear-down music right now,” he says, reflecting on the general positivity of his own life’s work.
“Maybe some do, but for me, it’s build-up time. Yes, go deeper and be soulful and thoughtful. But, I mean – we saw a man lose his life, his breath, in a time where everybody is trying to breathe, and preserve their breath. Everybody’s life is in danger right now. Whether young people believe it or not.”
In mid-May, Porter lost his elder brother to COVID-19. So, sandwiched in between all of what comes with promoting a record, he is also attempting to grapple with the process of grief.
“You know, I think it’s right in the forefront of my brain at the moment. What did I say? What am I leaving? What’s in my wake? I’m conscious of – and maybe this is just a dark time for me – but I’m conscious of my mortality. And I want to leave something positive.”
And while Porter wishes that black art won’t always have to come from a place of struggle, it’s hard not to recognise the effect that generational trauma has on the world of jazz and soul.
“I come from a slave,” says Porter. “And that slave was illiterate, he scrambled for his food. I come from an Other, or a less-than. Black people have had to find their culture, resurrect it, and from that, there is a lot of pain and suffering. In this journey, of coming to some semblance of equality, any slight, any disrespect or unfairness is something that we express about. In a way, it’s fortunate for the world because it’s brought about blues, soul, gospel, R&B and jazz. I’m not suggesting that black music, or black art or black expression has to have suffering in order to bring about what it has, but definitely this energy was used as a catalyst for resurrection, revival, resurgence.
“Even after COVID and Black Lives Matter, that will come out in the artwork, in people’s writings, because this is the way we are,” he says, looking at the music of the post-war era by way of comparison. “I mean, I wasn’t alive,” he laughs, “but you go back and look at that and realise that people were really trying to get up out of the dirt.”
One thing’s for sure: Gregory Porter is soul food, and All Rise will be looked at in much the same light in years – if not generations – to come.
- All Rise is out now.