As anyone who has ever danced to Louis Armstrong, sipped scotch to Tony Bennett, or canoodled to Billie Holiday will tell you, there are moments when only the sound of a real jazz vocalist will do. The best singers make the near-impossible sound effortless and inhabit a special zone that’s as close to the source of human emotion as art can get. He may not have the name recognition of a Michael Bublé (yet), but Gregory Porter, who will bring his band to UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Thursday, January 15, is that special kind of unforgettable jazz singer. His 2013 Blue Note Records release Liquid Spirit won the Grammy for Best Vocal Jazz Album in 2014, and he’s been gathering fans worldwide for years now, with high-profile performances on BBC television and in such distinguished venues as Royal Albert Hall.
Porter’s background in gospel means that he knows how to get a whole room into the spirit. With exquisite taste in jazz, pop, and soul, he’s never at a loss for a sophisticated and funky cover, but it’s his distinctive, heartfelt songwriting that makes Porter a one-of-a-kind talent. He also doesn’t get to the West Coast often, which makes this gig even more of a must for fans. We recently spoke with Porter by phone to talk about his sound, his style, and his success.
You had a busy 2014. Was that a result of winning the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album for Liquid Spirit? I had a lot of bookings even before I won the Grammy — that tour started when the record came out in September 2013 — but the award did step things up a bit. I’ve been performing pretty constantly for over a year and a half now.
Have you been writing? Can you write on the road? What’s that process like for you? Fortunately I don’t feel like I have to sit down somewhere quiet in order to write a song, so, yes, I have been writing the whole time that I’ve been touring. For me it happens organically, either on the plane or when I am walking around a city. Melody and lyrics tend to hit me together. Lyrically, I’m not the kind of writer who takes inspiration from random things like overheard conversations. My inspiration comes from rolling some idea around in my head and in my heart for a while. It doesn’t happen all at once.
Your cover of “The In Crowd” came out great. What made you choose that song? I did it primarily in homage to Ramsey Lewis and to that place he was able to get to musically where soul, gospel, and blues all converge. I feel like that’s where I am, too, so it’s a good style of song for me. It has that gospel tinge. The choice of “In Crowd” also has a personal meaning, because I started singing it once I knew that I would be recording for Blue Note. It became my way of acknowledging that I had gotten in with the Blue Note in crowd, which is of course a great honor, to be part of that legacy.
What was the experience of recording for Blue Note like for you? Recording for Blue Note was great. They had no interest in trying to change me. I felt like my approach to the music was fully accepted there.
You are very popular in England and in Europe more generally. How do you feel about it? I feel great about it. Playing in England has been an incredibly positive experience for me, and my music is even more popular in Germany, where the record went platinum. I got off to a good start by performing on the Jools Holland show and then on the radio with Jamie Cullum. It’s a sophisticated audience, and they love jazz. I am grateful for the amazing venues such as Royal Albert Hall that I’ve gotten to play, too.
One thing I noticed about your live clips is the way you get people to clap along. Is that something that comes out of the church? Yes, it is, very much so. I do that handclap on “Liquid Spirit” all the time; it’s something I know from the pastors I saw working their song and praise services when I was growing up. With clapping along like that, you are asking the audience to come on a spiritual journey with you, and wherever I go, people seem willing to get that message. It’s funny: I’m not going to say that the people [in Europe] keep better time than people in, say, Louisiana, but you’d be surprised how into it an audience will get in some town in Germany.
Gregory Porter and his band perform at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Thursday, January 15, at 8 p.m. For tickets and information, call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.