Preview: Gregory Porter
A down-to-earth jazzman looks at love and life
Posted: March 13, 2013
Porter's gentle modesty and openness, which come though in his songs, have found a receptive audience around the world.
The jazz singer Gregory Porter makes a triumphant return to Prague after his debut in town last October as part of the Strings of Autumn festival, when he stole hearts at most for his two sold-out concerts at Lucerna Music Bar. That second show was added at the last minute because of overwhelming demand.
His appearance this near-spring week is again part of Strings of Autumn, but this time as a gala evening to promote and raise funds for the multigenre fall festival, which has happened every year since 1996.
Porter is a perfect choice for Strings of Autumn's mission to bring together artists from classical and jazz to crossover and world music, combining traditional and experimental programming for all ages. Yet, despite his insistence on calling himself a jazz singer in the tradition of his biggest influence, Nat King Cole, Porter's music is harder to categorize, and he knows it.
Gospel, soul and the blues are strong currents in Porter's songs of love lost and gained and fragile family relationships and hardships - and then, much less common in today's music, protest and spirituality also have an equal place, just as in the songs of some of the long-lost great black male vocalists of the 1960s and '70s: the true voices of that experience, including Donny Hathaway, Gil Scott-Heron and Marvin Gaye.
When: Thursday, March 14, at 7:30
Where: Palác Žofín
Tickets: 900-1,400 Kč
Porter's 2010 debut, Water, on the Motéma Music label, was nominated for a Grammy in the best jazz vocal category, and the best track on that recording is still gaining attention. "1960 What?" is a deep neo-soul gem that recalls the sociopolitical lyrics of Scott-Heron and Gaye. A song like this, about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, still seems like a necessary cry for our times, with such lyrics as, "Hey the Motor City is burning. That ain't right."
"I used Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and Los Angeles; so, several domestic disturbances based on feelings of unjustness by segments of the community," Porter says by phone from his apartment in Brooklyn. "That song is a statement or a documentary of mistreating people, and they are so upset about this that they are burning their own neighborhoods."
Porter's second album, 2012's Be Good, is equally strong, with standout tracks such as "On My Way to Harlem," about gentrification, and "Be Good (Lion's Song)," which looks at the singer's own broken heart. Overall, there is a gentle modesty and openness to all of the songs that have found a receptive audience around the world - and Porter is still getting used to it.
"I'm honored that my career has opened up the way it is, and my stories of life and love are so appreciated," he says.
Before moving to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, Porter lived in Harlem, but he was born in 1971 in Los Angeles and raised in Bakersfield, a few hours northeast. Later, he studied urban planning at San Diego State University on a football scholarship, but a shoulder injury ended his athletic career.
His jazz life in New York only began after he joined a theater production in San Diego of Ain't Nothing but the Blues. This production debuted in Denver but eventually reached New York, first for a run off Broadway, then the big time on. Porter has been in New York City since then, but he still carries himself like someone from the other coast.
"I miss California, the open spaces and the green in any season," he says. "There is also an openness and willingness to engage people that is completely Californian, but not in New York. I still have that."
Raised by his mother, a minister, in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley, Porter always wears a hunter's cap with earflaps. Porter is down-to-earth, with a disarming and unpretentious demeanor. He is also an important part of the resurgence of young black male jazz singers.
Recommended attire for this gala event is black suit and evening gown. And tickets entitle the bearer to a free welcome drink (Champagne or cocktail) to be served between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m.
Tony Ozuna can be reached at