Jazz Journey: Gregory Porter

Grammy-winning singer ready to take in New Orleans

A solo recording artist for just a few years, jazz singer Gregory Porter has already earned two Grammy nominations.

Porter’s latest Grammy honor arrived last month. His song “Real Good Hands” is nominated for best traditional rhythm-and-blues performance. The singer’s 2010 album, “Water,” earned a Grammy nomination for best jazz vocal album.

A Brooklyn-based vocalist and songwriter who’s especially popular in Europe, Porter was pleasantly surprised by his first Grammy nomination.

“And then this one,” he marveled a few weeks ago from a gig in St. Louis, Mo. “Sometimes it seems like if you’re on their radar, maybe you’ll get some attention, but I wasn’t counting on it, for sure. Quite frankly, myself, I just stay humble and do what I do.”

Porter, a stylish, expressive artist influenced by everyone from Nat King Cole to Marvin Gaye, attended the Grammy Awards show following that first nomination.

“Yeah, it was wonderful,” he said. “And I like to see the huge personalities and the outrageous clothes, all of it. I don’t want anybody to start acting normal for me.”

Porter sat among his musical idols in the Grammy show audience and met some of them, too.

“From Stevie Wonder to Herbie Hancock, it was just amazing to be in that company,” he said.

Porter had a week of gigs scheduled concurrently with the Grammy Awards show on Feb. 10, but he rescheduled them so he could make his second appearance at music’s biggest night.

“It’s an important thing for the music industry,” he said. “So I moved the gigs. Yes, I’ll be there.”

Porter has received Grammy nominations in both the jazz and traditional rhythm-and-blues categories.

“Yes, I’m a jazz singer,” he said. “But I borrow and use soul and R&B. And much of that comes out of blues and gospel. So, that’s where I’m at.”

Porter lets the song guide his interpretation.

“Sometimes the song suggests everything that needs to be there,” he explained. “Like the lyrics, ‘Mama, don’t you worry about your daughter, ’cause you’re leavin’ her in real good hands.’ That suggests that it needs a beat like: Hmm, um-um; um-um, hmm, um-um.”

One of Porter’s singing idols, Nat King Cole, moved easily between jazz and pop. When Porter was a child growing up with his single, minister mother in Bakersfield, Calif., he sang along with her Cole records. He’d later do a one-man show called “Nat King Cole and Me.”

“In the show, I describe a conversation I had with my mother when I was 5 or 6,” he said. “I was just playing around with some music and she said, ‘You sound like Nat King Cole.’ I don’t suspect I really sounded like Nat King Cole, but maybe I was extending my vowels, something she thought was Cole-esque.”

In addition to the way Cole would glide up to a note, Porter admires the depth of emotion and understanding with which Cole expressed lyrics.

“He caressed lyrics in a brilliant way. So, yeah, I’m still learning from Nat King Cole.”

Porter, a singer who’s worked with New Orleans musicians Wynton Marsalis and Jonathan Batiste, is making his New Orleans concert debut Friday, Jan. 18. He’ll join Barbara Morrison and Warren “Porgy” Jones for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation’s “Jazz Journey Concert: A Martin Luther King Weekend Celebration.”

“I’m looking forward to coming to New Orleans and ingesting all the musical culture that’s there,” he said.

While there’s so much music in New Orleans, Porter has a particular fondness for Aaron Neville and the Neville Brothers.

“When you hear their voices, it’s like, ‘Ah! I know who and what that is!’ And they never try to shape themselves into something that they aren’t. That’s what may be missing in a lot of music today, which is a really, really unique sound. I listen to the Nevilles’ music and I’m like, ‘Wow, it’s so deep and soulful.’ ”

John Wirt is a music writer. He can be reached at jwirt@theadvocate.com.