Concert preview: Grammy-winning jazz vocalist feels too young for jazz

CorrespondentFebruary 27, 2014 

Jazz vocalist Gregory Porter calls his Kangol Spitfire cap his “jazz blankey.”

VINCENT SOYEZ — COURTESY OF VINCENT SOYEZ

  • Details

    Who: Gregory Porter

    When: 8 p.m. Thursday

    Where: Reynolds Industries Theater, Duke University, 125 Science Dr., Durham

    Admission: Sold out

    Info: 919-660-3356 or dukeperformances.duke.edu

The following is an article on jazz musician Gregory Porter. So let’s just get the hat thing out of the way.

It’s more than likely that fans of the 42-year-old vocalist have wondered what is the deal with that Kangol Spitfire cap – complete with a black ski hood – that he’s been rocking since 2006. “It’s just my style,” says Porter. “It’s just my thing. Recently, I called it my ‘jazz blankey.’ 

While waiting to board a plane to Knoxville, just one of many destinations this man has on his itinerary (“I was in Sweden yesterday,” he says, heartily laughing. “I’m just trying to find out what country I’m in, you know”), the California-born, New York-based Porter discusses how he’s created his style as a jazz performer. Considering that he’s only dropped a few albums in his time as professional musician (he released his Grammy-nominated debut “Water” in 2010), he certainly doesn’t think he’s at the point of being seen as a sage veteran.

“I still feel very young in music,” he says. “I feel very young as a person. Developmentally, I feel very young – especially in jazz, in a way. It’s like you don’t gain wisdom until you get that seasoned age of a 65-year-old Abbey Lincoln, you know. Every song, every word, is wisdom.”

Porter feels he’s at that age where he’s too old for pop, just right for soul and too young for jazz. “Musically, I don’t fit anywhere and, even with my age, I don’t fit anywhere,” he laments. “I’m not really concerned with categories anyway.”

Nevertheless, he still strives to build a distinctive niche for himself in the jazz world. “I consider myself a jazz singer even when I’m doing something that feels, that sounds more soul or more gospel,” he says. “I’m always thinking about improvisation, deviating from the melody, even deviating from the lyrics sometimes in live performances when I perform the songs. And, so, I’m always thinking like a jazz singer, even on the recordings.

“I’m only thinking of coupling these genres into the same house, really, that they grew up in, in a way. Blues and soul and gospel music – they all have this very close root. And, so, that’s what I’m doing, in a way.”

Blue Note Records certainly likes what he is doing. The legendary jazz label approached Porter after his two-record deal with Motema Music was up and invited him to start recording for them. Being a longtime collector of Blue Note releases, Porter jumped on board.

He says the move to Blue Note and the creative freedom the label gives him have made him more confident as a performer.

He says, “When I came to Blue Note, they said to me, ‘Just be you. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Just write and record, and we’ll check it out when it’s done.’ There was no pressure.”

This new relationship does appear to be paying off. His first album for Blue Note, 2013’s “Liquid Spirit,” won a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album in January.

“It was really a great experience,” he says of the Grammy win. “People tell me that it’s a little different experience when you win – and it is, because you kind of get snatched up and kind of directed to parties and meeting a bunch of interesting people in a very short amount of time. So, yeah, it was an extraordinary experience. In a way, I wasn’t looking for it. I wasn’t expecting it, because I kind of lost my breath when they did call my name.”

As excited as Porter was to get his Grammy, he had to go back to work the next day, which meant getting back on tour and performing for audiences all over the globe. (He’ll be performing a sold-out show at Duke University in Durham this Thursday.)

So even though he’ll be wearing his “jazz blankey,” dude will most likely have more swagger in his step now that he’s a bona fide Grammy winner.

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