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‘There’s Room for Everybody on this Plate of Jazz’: An Interview with Gregory Porter

‘There’s Room for Everybody on this Plate of Jazz’: An Interview with Gregory Porter

12 June 2017 |

In advance of his appearance at Woodstock in Oxfordshire for Nocturne Live 2017 on 17 June, the jazz maestro talks about his rise to the top, his distinctive style and approach, and how there’s plenty more room on the ‘plate of jazz’…

Growing up with seven siblings, it must have been difficult to imagine emerging from that throng to take the limelight all to yourself, but that’s just what Gregory Porter was able to do once his mother encouraged him to 'Sing, baby, sing!' It could all have been very different for the Grammy-winning jazz singer – if it wasn’t for a career-ending shoulder injury he might have found himself becoming an American football superstar. But if you believe that everything happens for a reason, Porter’s real calling seems crystal clear.
 
Of course, given it took him twenty-odd years of grafting to support his ambitions of singing for a living, Porter is philosophical about – and absolutely grateful for – the success he’s had. ‘It’s been extraordinary,’ he says. ‘I thought once I’d gotten out of my twenties that maybe it wouldn’t happen for me. I always knew that I loved music and that I would be in it, but I didn’t know that I could have a career. So to be here is not even a dream come true – it’s like a hardcore dream come true!’


 
Going from club singer in the early 2000s to having a top 10 UK album, Liquid Spirit, in 2013 – and receiving the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album – the singer has received almost universal acclaim. Indeed, according to the New York Times he is ‘a jazz singer of thrilling presence’; others refer to his ‘creamy baritone’, ‘a voice and musicality to be reckoned with’. Where jazz has often been seen as niche, Porter’s performances and style put the genre front and centre whenever he opens his mouth.
 
‘We are not re-writing the book of jazz, but it’s definitely more inclusive of modern statements,’ he says of the evolution of jazz, with a nod to his contemporaries Laura Mvula and Robert Glasper. ‘I think that the styles of a lot of the young jazz artists are really showing – not just the jazz market, but the world – that the music has to live and breathe and the subject matter has to be relevant for the day, just as jazz was in its formative years. There’s room for everybody on this plate of jazz.’
 
After the release of his second Grammy Award-winning album – Take Me To The Alley – last year, and having just embarked on a lengthy world tour running right the way through to November, Porter finds himself in greater demand than ever. ‘Well, the touring internationally continues to happen,’ he says. ‘But I’m always working on new songs and I keep going. I’ll always just continue to do my thing – write and sing.’


 
While his career has mostly run in the digital age where artists are able to release music outside of the traditional model, he’s been around long enough to see how the industry has evolved and to understand his place within it. Are we likely to see ad hoc single or even album drops any time soon?
 
‘I think it’s a cool thing and at some point in my evolution hopefully I’ll be able to do that,’ he says. ‘Artists wish they could make 100 songs a year, but we can’t because not only will the record company not let that happen, it may be difficult to do that and tour. You know you kind of wish that you could just be an artist, just throw it out there and if somebody in the fan base doesn’t like it, so what, here’s another one! But generally the audience gets 14 to 25 songs a year by any artist.’


 
Porter, as one of the key drivers for modernising jazz, has also found himself in the esteemed company of other genre icons such as Jamie Cullum, who Porter says helped him gain exposure in the UK scene by playing his records on his radio show and ‘championing my sound’. Indeed, Cullum collaborated with Porter on album tracks and Porter says they ‘have a lot of fun together’.
 
The pair are due to share a stage at this year’s Nocturne Live event, where on 17 June they’ll join fellow celebrated singer-songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae for a magical Saturday night of jazz in the Great Court of Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, Oxfordshire. On what promises to be a balmy summer evening, will we see Porter remove his trademark hat and stocking combo? 'No, I don’t think I can sing without it!' he laughs. 'This is my style. Someone may make me an interesting hat and I may wear something different, but at the moment this is my thing.'

Gregory Porter will be playing at Nocturne Live on 17 June at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire. Nocturne Live runs 15 – 18 June. See the festival website for more information.

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