Getting a Best Jazz Vocalist Grammy nomination never gets old for Gregory Porter. “You can’t line these things up and expect them to happen,” he said of his good fortune. “When they do happen, it’s amazing.” The singer/composer — who won 2014’s Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album for Liquid Spirit (2013) —plays the Granada on January 24 in support of his fourth record, Take Me to the Alley, and is equally thrilled to share the same label as Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus. The Blue Note artist isn’t one to rest on his laurels, however: “I’m one of those people who is like, ‘Now you’ve done this, what is the work going to be?’” he said.
The lyrics on Alley explore navigating romantic relationships: The hard gospel of “Don’t Be a Fool” presents a remorseful cheater dispensing advice to the listener after faking love to the woman who truly loves him. Other songs also revolve around the concept of reappreciating one’s partner. Porter admitted that his lyrics are inspired by his own life but that he “sometimes [switches] the roles to protect the innocent.”
Alley possesses many aural pleasures, too, such as when his commanding baritone pounces ahead of his band on “Don’t Lose Your Steam.” “In Fashion” obsesses about a chic lady over a “Bennie and the Jets”–style sonic spine.
There is certainly a big jazz tradition of covering and interpolating chestnuts (John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” anyone?), but don’t let Porter’s “More Than a Woman” fool you. This track and the Bee Gees hit only share a title and a sentiment. “[When composing], I’m letting the song dictate where it’s going to be. Now will I go write a song called ‘Purple Rain’?” he added, laughing.
Born in Sacramento and raised in Bakersfield and Los Angeles, Porter shares a similar origin story to late E Street Band member Clarence Clemons, who picked up the sax after a knee injury sidelined his Dallas Cowboys tryout. In Porter’s case, a shoulder injury curtailed his lineman stint for the San Diego State University Aztecs. Still, Porter emphasized that music has always been in his soul. “Sometimes I was singing in the locker room,” he said.
Music also gave him solace as his mother died of cancer when he was 21. Porter’s song “In Heaven” includes “elements from one of my mother’s sermons in the style of that Pentecostal church experience.”
Certainly, Alley provides a diversity of stylings. “I’m all over the map,” Porter said of the record. “Some is bebop, some ’70s spiritual era: Leon Thomas, Andy Bey — some singer/songwriter.” Hard bop energy definitely fuels “Fan the Flames” and the rollicking “French African Queen.” “It doesn’t matter culturally what [songs mean],” Porter said of his new album’s particulars. “It sold more in Germany and the U.K. than the U.S. I don’t mean [my music] just for the diaspora of the black people but for all people,” said Porter, amazed at how the Japanese get his music just as much as the Germans and British. And while, as expected, New York and San Francisco have been receptive live, he’s also discovered “pockets of love” in unlikely places such as Texas and Iowa. “I have to stop underestimating myself or where the music is finding ears,” said the Bakersfield resident, who looks forward to returning to “the magic city on the other side of the mountain,” as he calls Santa Barbara.
And while, at 45, Porter may appear too young to embrace jazz, he scoffs at any notion that the genre is dated, pointing to Cécile McClorin Salvant, Kamasi Washington, José James, and several more contemporaries as proof of its vitality. “Jazz is a living music,” Porter said. “The current story has to be told.”
Gregory Porter plays Tuesday, January 24, 8 p.m., at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). Call 899-2222 or see granadasb.org.