Tag Archives: Blue Note

The Cat in the Jazz Hat

Photo_Liquid Sp_300CMYK 1It’s not often you put the phone down from an interview with someone who is probably enduring 20-odd interviews a day, and think “What a lovely guy,” but, then it’s not very often you come across someone as charming and unassuming as Gregory Porter, the soulful 42-year-old jazz singer who is no longer the “next big thing” but the “big thing” itself.

Porter, who performs in Glasgow on Saturday, is currently riding the wave of Grammy and chart success thanks to Liquid Spirit, his debut album on legendary jazz label Blue Note. Porter’s appeal may go well beyond the jazz arena, but his musical roots lie very much in jazz and gospel, the types of music with which he grew up in California.

The combination of a very present mother and a completely absent father shaped the course of Porter’s journey through music. His mother was a minister who raised eight children in what Porter describes as “a very musical household”. Everyone mucked in with cooking and cleaning, and there was always a soundtrack, whether it was from the radio or from the family singing which, of course, they did in church as well as at home.

For Porter, whose talent was identified early on, singing was a way of getting his mother’s attention. “I was a mama’s boy,” he admits, “and that was a way to get on to her side. The two things that I really love to do are cooking and singing – two things my mother really loved. I was number seven of eight kids – so you had to find some way to distinguish yourself in the household.”

It may sound ridiculous, but it was in his mother’s record collection that Porter, whose teenage tastes already included Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, found a father figure – in the great singer/pianist Nat “King” Cole. He explains: “I became obsessed with Nat King Cole. I was using his music and his style, and even the images from his records, to satiate me in some way in some absence that I had – in terms of a father figure.”

Cole’s rich, chocolatey voice was comforting, and he seemed to exude an air of wisdom. As imaginary fathers go, his appeal is pretty obvious: on the much-repeated television shows that he made in the 1950s (he died in 1965), he came across as an avuncular personality, introducing his songs as if dispensing advice and addressing the audience as if he was talking to close friends and relatives. Porter remembers album covers making a particular impression on him: “A lot of them show him sitting by the fire with a pipe.” He always came across as a family man.

Not only did Nat King Cole to some extent plug an emotional gap in the young Mr Porter’s life, but he also proved to be the launchpad for his career. In 1998, Porter had been singing in small jazz clubs in San Diego while attending the state university on a football scholarship when he was invited by local pianist/saxophonist Kamau Kenyatta to visit him in the Los Angeles recording studio where he was producing flautist Hubert Laws’ album Remembers the Unforgettable Nat King Cole.

When Laws overheard Porter singing along to the song Smile, he was so impressed that he decided to include him on the album. Another twist of Nat King Cole fate that day was a chance encounter with Laws’ sister, a singer who was about to join the cast of a new musical, It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues. One thing led to another – and Porter landed one of the leading roles when it opened in Denver. Off-Broadway then Broadway success followed, and in the New York Times’ 1999 rave review, Porter was mentioned as one of the show’s “powerhouse line-up of singers”.

The Cole connection didn’t end there: in 2004, Porter wrote his own musical – about his relationship with his “father figure”. In Nat King Cole and Me – A Musical Healing, he played a character based on himself, a boy seeking love and guidance and finding it in Cole, who – like him – had “grown up in the church”, with both parents involved in the ministry.

Porter’s love for Cole was ultimately expressed in many ways – and may soon manifest itself in a duet with his surviving daughter, the singer Natalie Cole – but initially, during the early years, it was his own, “private” music. “I liked that,” he says. “I still do that to this day. I like it when there’s some unique singer that not a whole bunch of people know about – and it’s my personal musical conversation that I’m having with them.”

So, do any other singers get a look-in as influences? Porter chuckles and replies: “Yeah. For me, very different stylistically [from Cole] but in the way that both are singing from a very emotional standpoint I would say Donny Hathaway. Also Bill Withers and Lou Rawls – those styles and types of voices and approach have always been very influential to me.”

Another key influence is the jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln – but not so much for her singing. “In terms of my writing and even approaching my music, she has been very much an influence. She was very personal with her style and her offerings of music. She would put personal stories, personal cultural stories, into her writing and it’s almost hard to imagine anybody else singing her music – and so I think I’ve taken cues from her. She was willing to put her politics into the music as well; life being politics – she put that into the music, and that was something that affected me and my thinking about music as well.”

All but three of the 14 songs on Liquid Spirit were penned by Porter who has been praised for the way in which he weaves social and political observations into his songs, and for his ability to translate painful personal experiences into poignant lyrics that are easy to relate to. Doesn’t he ever kick himself and think: “I wish I hadn’t put that song on the album – because now I’ve got to keep singing it?!” Isn’t it like reliving the same experience over and over?

Laughing heartily, he says: “Yeah! But I’ll tell you something that’s interesting. I keep being asked ‘who is Laura?’ [from the brink-of-break-up song Hey Laura]… Actually, she was from Edinburgh! I’m speaking to you from Laura’s home in Colorado.” He doesn’t elaborate.

Of course, the other question that Porter is always being asked is “what’s the story with the hat?”. The singer is never seen without his signature bunnet-cum-balaclava.  Is it, as one paper reported, the sartorial equivalent of a security blanket – his “jazz blankee”? Does he have a scalp condition? Is it a homage to Thelonious Monk who was seldom seen sans wacky chapeau.

The singer chuckles good-naturedly. “It goes with what I feel about music. I admire people who are their own individuals in the music, who have a distinct and unique sound and approach. That’s what jazz is supposed to be – you’re supposed to be a unique individual in the music. It also applies to your personal charisma and style – and even with your personal dress. As a jazz musician, you’re probably supposed to be a little bit out of the box. And let’s face it, there have already been a whole bunch of great jazz hats – Count Basie’s sailor caps, Lester Young’s pork pie hat etc. This is mine.”

* Gregory Porter plays the ABC, Glasgow, on Saturday.

 First published in Scotland on Sunday on April 27


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Nairn Jazz: Gene Harris (1994)

This is an interview/review published in The Herald on November 30, 1994.

Funky Gene’s. The title of Gene Harris’s new CD says it all. And they don’t come much funkier. Not in Nairn anyway. But, unlikely as it may sound, Nairn and Mr H have a thing goin’ on. Last weekend the American pianist paid his second visit in two months to the wee town whose healthy and regular diet of major jazz artistes — courtesy of local fruiterer/promoter Ken Ramage — often puts the rest of the country to shame.

Harris had such a good time when he played Nairn in September that he was only too keen to take up the invitation to come again. Three not insignificant factors in his readiness to accept were guitarist Jim Mullen, bass player Dave Green and drummer Allan Ganley.

”These guys are cream of the crop in Great Britain. I hadn’t worked with any of them before my first night in Nairn (my first night in Scotland), and I certainly wasn’t expecting the high quality of talent that I got. I was amazed and pleasantly surprised, 99% of American jazz musicians are sons of bitches ’cause they believe that just because they’re American they’re the best in the world. That’s a lie.”

Michigan-born Harris, however, is regarded by many as one of the best exponents of his instrument and is in demand all over the world. During his lifelong musical career he has rarely been out of jazz work (although he did make a brief foray into the world of disco music in the 1970s); as leader of various trios (the first being the Blue Note-recorded Three Sounds) or bigger outfits like the all-star Philip Morris Superband. In Nairn, he summed himself up quite simply: ”I’m just an old funky blues player at heart.”

But to categorise Harris as a blues player is to underestimate his versatility. True, he has the emotional intensity of a blues man. His playing on Saturday was passionate — oftimes verging on the melodramatic: I Thought About You began as a poignant, reflective piece but became angry and resentful. Georgia began in the same way, but it developed into a rollicking boogie woogie — the style which, through the recordings of Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons, first inspired Harris to take to the keyboards himself.

In cheerful mode, Harris displayed a remarkable lightness of touch — his fingers barely skimming the ivories as they scurried up and down the magnificent Bosendorfer grand piano (especially hired from Edinburgh) — and a facial expression reminiscent of another great jazz pianist/entertainer, Fats Waller. But it was the romantic numbers that drew the most enthusiastic reaction from an already-converted Nairn audience on Saturday. Harris played Misty with fingers positively dripping sentiment, but it was his Sweet Lorraine — less sickly and therefore more enjoyable — which was the real highlight of the evening.

There can be no doubt that Harris will be back in Nairn. Which is great for Nairn jazz fans and those who can be bothered to make the three and a half hour,  £29 train journey from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Inverness. But until someone in the central belt starts to book these big jazz names when they’re touring over here, they’re just going to keep flying over our heads.


Filed under Nairn Jazz Festival