WICN Artist of the Month, February 2024: Gregory Porter
Written by Doug Hall on February 1, 2024
By Doug Hall, WICN Contributing Writer
In the music world, particularly in the R&B and Soul genres, the foundation of church gospel in the early lives of African-American vocalists is widespread. Aretha Franklin, Toni Braxton, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, and Sam Cooke all had their musical beginnings in local neighborhood churches that served their communities, offering a core grounding for their vocal styles. Gregory Porter, a multi-Grammy award-winning crossover jazz vocalist, is very much a part of this longstanding musical tradition. Porter, who has enjoyed a meteoric rise to commercial success in album sales, sold-out performances, and an international following over the past decade, attributes his vocal inspiration to his roots growing up in Bakersfield, California. As a child, in a Pentecostal tent church on the outskirts of the city, he found his spiritual beliefs and received early training in choir singing. Renowned now for his booming baritone timbre and soulful, ranging voice, Porter’s popularity has since drawn audiences from across the spectrum of jazz, R&B, gospel, and even pop music.
Beyond his exquisite voice, which can swell from a deep register to a whisper in a single phrasing of a song, Porter is also committed to the message behind the composition. In a 2020 interview with DownBeat magazine, he expressed his focus on meaningful lyrics beyond his voice, “But above that is the message—if it’s a message of irrepressible love or mutual respect or justice or just something insightful about love and life. I really am most concerned about the message, and if the ears are catching it.”
Porter’s distinctive and effortlessly versatile masculine voice echoes some influences from both jazz and R&B. But there remains an overwhelming emotional presence and sumptuous richness of a church revival soloist. Porter has spoken about a few considerable legends that have shaped his style: “I would say Donny Hathaway, Nat King Cole, Bill Withers – I hear something of me in all of them that is similar to the culture that I grew up in, i.e. Gospel music. I could hear the familiarity to Gospel music in the songs of someone like Ray Charles; just voices that influence my soul and are rooted in Gospel music.”
Beyond the message, and in his most personal compositions, it is his heartfelt, poignant tenderness and the bass register of his voice, that speaks out to the listener. Porter is in his unique singing niche when channeling expressions of refrain, regret, love lost, or hope. Listening to Water Under Bridges, Hey Laura, Everything’s Not Lost or Illusion, the power of his vocal instrument, delivers – often with little or no accompaniment. A reviewer of a concert performance speaks to the connection Porter makes with his audience: “Whether you’re up close or in the cheap seats, it seems that Gregory Porter is singing for you, that he knows you. You leave feeling good, as if you’ve gotten a dose of medicine, you didn’t know you needed.”
His career recordings began with his 2010 Grammy-nominated debut release Water, followed the next year by the critically acclaimed Be Good (2012) for the Motéma label. Porter then signed to the iconic Blue Note label and broke through to a larger audience and wider commercial success crossing over to R&B and pop charts with the Grammy award-winning releases Liquid Spirit (2013) and Take Me to The Alley (2016).
Porter would then return to his roots with his 2017 tribute album to a primary influence with Nat King Cole & Me. In 2018, he recorded a live concert album at London’s Royal Albert Hall, again showcasing his R&B-infused songwriting with 2020’s All Rise, picking up another Grammy nomination for Best R&B Album. In his most ambitious collaborative project, Still Rising ( 2021), he brought together standards, original pieces, and star-studded duets, including songs with Renee Fleming, Dianna Reeves, and Laura Mvula.
With an upbringing in a poor, segregated community in Bakersfield, Gregory’s reaction to the racism he experienced personally was to find healing, resolve, and belief in his love of Gospel music and its message. In particular, his 2020 release All Rise was a personal reflection and subtle approach to addressing social issues of race, division, and humanity. Kamau Kenyatta, a UC San Diego music professor, and a key mentor and collaborator (he has produced or co-produced five of the singer’s six studio albums), speaks to this awareness in Porter’s approach to his audience. “Then there’s this other component — the records and concerts — that reach society at large. He’s very aware of this; it doesn’t happen by chance. He knows he can take his art and healing powers to the world…the process of writing these enlightening and inspiring songs is also healing for Gregory as well.”
Ultimately, the voice is its own art form in music, be it jazz, R&B, gospel, pop, etc. There are numerous stylists whose singing is still seeking a purpose or defining direction; Gregory Porter has found his, in the resounding depth of emotion and range of tone which both transcends genre and delivers poetry and humanity in his voice and lyrics.