For the first time next Friday, jazz singer-songwriter Gregory Porter will bring his impressive baritone to Charleston as part of the Spoleto USA Festival.
In 2010, Porter released his first solo album, “Water,” which was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Jazz Vocal category. This year, he was nominated for a Grammy again for his performance of “Real Good Hands,” a song from his sweet and surefooted sophomore album, “Be Good.”
Porter’s songwriting receives a larger focus on “Be Good.” Jazz and soul intermingle, and his tunes already sound like standards. One song, “On My Way to Harlem,” laments the creeping gentrification of Harlem and the loss of history in the departed echoes of black cultural luminaries like Langston Hughes and Duke Ellington.
Producer Brian Bacchus said Porter combines singer-songwriter chops with vocals that are strong and pure.
“Gregory’s writing is such a joy, and of course his actual voice is amazing,” Bacchus said.
“Be Good,” which he produced, showcases Porter’s talents, which are rooted in 1970s soul music, he said. “He’s unique. It’s definitely a jazz band that he has, but where he’s coming from in terms of song form and songwriting is very, very different. He naturally pulls that all together; it’s very soulful.”
Porter’s appearance at Spoleto Festival USA follows on the heels of a European tour and is part of an ongoing set of concerts that continue through next February. The schedule may be arduous, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
“I don’t know what it is about me, but movement lets me write,” he said. “I wrote ‘On My Way to Harlem’ on the train there.”
That track is one that audiences call for during his sets. John Murph, who writes about Jazz for The Atlantic, The Root and NPR, says that songs from “Be Good” were being requested at performances before the album was released.
“He’s a very captivating singer. He knows how to deliver a song, and that’s something that is too often missing from a lot of singers, especially new jazz singers,” said Murph. “And I think that one of the things that Gregory Porter has on his side is that he is a great songwriter.”
Porter grew up in a large family supported only by their mother, a minister, in the predominantly white neighborhood of Bakersfield, Calif. While they lived there, Porter said his family faced threats and violence from their neighbors. They persevered, but it was not always easy, and real events like this often find their way into his songs.
“It hasn’t seasoned my life,” Porter said, but it was the impetus of “1960 What?” — a song that touches on race riots and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Porter was an outside linebacker on a football scholarship at San Diego State University until a shoulder injury put an end to his athletic career. Singing in jazz clubs around the university, he met pianist and saxophonist Kamau Kenyatta, who became his mentor.
Porter found himself singing on Broadway a few years later in “It Ain’t Nothing But the Blues,” and then on a Denver stage performing “Nat King Cole & Me: A Musical Healing,” directed by Randal Myler. Part Bildungsroman and part tribute to Nat King Cole, Porter’s performance was rooted in his own life growing up without a father. Five years later, he was signed to Harlem-based Motema Music and prepared to release his record, “Water.”
Bacchus continues to work with Porter and said the first single from the new album will be released soon.
“Some new songs might find their way into the (Charleston) set,” Porter said teasingly.
Joseph DiDomizio is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.