Grammy-winning jazz singer Gregory Porter had a list of things to do before he hit the road: paint the fence and cut down trees.
“The way I stay grounded is by cleaning my gutters and rearranging the garage, changing diapers,” he said last week from Bakersfield, Calif., a day before his tour started. . “I’m just an ordinary guy.”
There were other issues to deal with, including his organist missing the first two nights of the tour due to COVID symptoms. The singer takes COVID precautions seriously, especially after one of his brothers died from coronavirus in 2020.
“If science and cities tell us we need to shut down again, I’m okay with that,” he said. “I’m all for keeping people safe.”
When Porter comes to St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater on Sunday, he will be aware of the racial reckoning in the Twin Cities with the deaths of George Floyd, Daunte Wright, Winston Smith and Amir Locke at the hands of police.
“I am aware of current and past trauma in the areas I have been to,” he explained. “It’s entertainment but it’s more than just entertainment; there’s something deeper going on.”
Porter recalled a 2015 concert in Israel where he faced a boycott over alleged human rights abuses by Israel, which he was unaware of when he signed the contract.
“There was so much pressure and political energy that I had to speak with my mother in the sky before I went on stage,” said Porter, who started singing at a church in Bakersfield where his late mother was. Minister. “So I talked about brotherhood and sang songs about offending the slightest and watching over your brother as a point of political differences.”
Porter, 49, is on tour behind “Still Rising – The Collection,” last fall’s 34-song retrospective that connects the dots of a stellar career that has seen him collaborate with everyone from diva from opera Renee Fleming and pop experimenter Moby to the late crooner Nat King Cole and early rocker Buddy Holly (via tech). Many of these duets are on the double album.
“The record is a good example of respecting music by not respecting genre,” said Porter, who won two Grammys for jazz vocal albums.
“I approach things like a jazz singer. I feel like a jazz singer in my body and in my voice, but sometimes because it’s jazz, gospel, blues, soul, which also stand out.” Music associated with black American music. They are cousins, one was built from the other, one influenced the other. I don’t feel the need to separate them.
“All Rise,” her 2020 album, is by far the most gospel-infused of her 12-year recording career. The singer said the direction was organic, dating back to the first music he sang as a child.
The video for single “Revival,” from “All Rise,” alludes to Freddie Gray, who died in Baltimore police custody in 2015, but Porter thinks the song has a broader reach.
“This applies to the cloud and darkness that can be forced upon you by racism and the many difficulties we have in our society. [but] it’s more than that. It is also internal doubt. It concerns everyone.”
Jazz as protest music
Porter has more obvious protest songs in his repertoire, including “1960 What?” and “Mister Holland”, about how he was treated rudely by the father of a white girl he hoped to date in high school.
“Yes, protest music is an essential part of jazz expression,” he said. “To paint the full picture of singing a song about optimism, you have to talk about where you’re from. There’s a reason you cross the Jordan, because on this side you catch hell.”
Overt racism was part of Porter’s childhood in Bakersfield. There were only two black families in his neighborhood. A 30-foot cross was burned in their yard. One of his brothers was shot on his way home from work. Bottles filled with urine were thrown from their windows.
One of seven children their father abandoned when Gregory was a toddler, Porter still managed to find his way. He won a high school talent contest singing a gospel tune after a well-received group rocked and then knocked the audience over. These musicians became famous as the metal band Korn. (Singer Jonathan Davis recently befriended Porter on Facebook.)
Porter went to San Diego State University on a football scholarship. Knowing the lineman could sing, teammates Marshall Faulk and Darnay Scott (both future NFL players) asked him to perform a song at practice one day.
“All day in the locker room these guys were listening to hip-hop, R&B and soul music, and on the soccer field I sang [the jazz standard] “Moody’s mood for love.” They had this puzzled look on their faces.”
A shoulder injury interrupted his football career, so Porter focused on earning a degree in urban planning. Meanwhile, his father, whom he barely knew, died when Porter was 20, and his mother spent the next year with cancer.
“My mother was on her deathbed. I told her that I was going to finish my studies, wear brown shoes, have two children and that everything would be normal,” he recalls.
She advised him otherwise.
“With her dying breath, she was encouraging me to pursue music. It gave me a kind of license to pursue it even if it didn’t bring me immediate success.”
As for his father, “he gave me no time, no advice, no money, nothing. But I learned at my father’s funeral that he was a great singer. He gave me something. My voice. I’ll take that.”
Porter has a luscious baritone that evokes Lou Rawls, with hints of Nat King Cole, Joe Williams, Donny Hathaway and Bill Withers.
This versatility has led to invitations to sing on records with world-class cellist Yo-Yo Ma and electronic dance duo Disclosure, among others.
Although its ingredients may vary from song to song, there is one constant for Porter: his Kangol Summer Spitfire hat.
He has 30 or 40 at home, but saves the black ones for the stage. “Some are meant for yard work,” he noted.
Like he said, an ordinary guy.
When: 8:30 p.m. Sun.
Or: Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul
Tickets: $49.50 to $79.50, first-avenue.com