Gregory Porter – Deep, Righteous Soul Shines on “Be Good”
You know how sometimes someone – a musician, a painter, a poet, a leader, a parent, a friend – someone will strike a chord in your soul and it resonates to the extent that it helps you define your place in the world? Motema Music artist Gregory Porter is one of those influences for me. And his second project, Be Good reinforces this position; personally, in the depths of my soul.
Be Good swings with soulful, smart maturity. Gregory sets a standard and scenario for what’s important in the world. This time, for him, what’s important is love. This beautiful artist has a way. Gentle elegance. Voice like fine silk. Wrap you up. We should be so lucky to have a singer like this who talks about love and life in a way that takes us back in time. Timelessness. His righteous storytelling is timeless. And his band, with Chip Crawford on piano, Aaron James on bass, Emanuel Harrold on drums, and Yosuke Sato on alto sax (along with guest artists Kamau Kenyatta, Keyon Harrold and Tivon Pennicott) takes us in its arms and carries us through this journey of life’s story – talks about things we feel deep down; where we would rather not have to speak, but just feel and be, and be understood. Gregory pays homage to what matters. Listen to the eighth track on Be Good – Mother’s Song honors his own mother, the backbone of his music-filled family. I personally witnessed his siblings watch him perform this song at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club before the album was released. The unity and pride his family expressed in support of their brother spoke worlds of the power of unconditional family love. Foundation. The essence of everything that matters.
I recently spoke with Gregory about this project:
I2H: What’s your process when you write?
GP: I never sit down and say ‘let me write a song now.’ It comes to me when it comes to me. The song On My Way to Harlem I literally wrote on the train from Brooklyn to Harlem. I don’t have a plan. When the inspiration strikes I’m quick to grab a pencil, grab my phone, a voice recorder or whatever.
I2H: I read that the pastor of your church had a big influence in your artistic development - can you tell me about that?
GP: My pastor most of my life was my mother. She was a minister and encouraged my singing from a very early age. She exposed me to not only gospel but other types of music; one of the first being Nat King Cole.
I2H: It seems like your shoulder injury in college was a blessing in disguise in terms of being a catalyst that led you on the path toward your true life destiny. Do you feel this way?
GP: It’s interesting. I always felt that no matter what I would be doing, I would be singing. If I had been a physician, I’d be a singing physician, or a singing football player. But you know what? I tell you, at that time, I had more free time and I involved myself in things that were more about what I was really loving so I found myself doing theatre and singing in clubs almost immediately after I was injured.
I2H: I recently spoke with Chip who told me how much he loves working with you and that you blew him away when you composed four very compelling songs in just two days. He seems to really tap into your spirit because he translates your phrases and melodies perfectly. He told me it was serendipitous when you both met. How do you like working with him?
GP: Chip’s been great and he gets me musically and he listens to me. If I’m singing Mother’s Song there’s an exuberance that I have singing about her and he brings that to the music as well. I’ve always loved being with musicians who enjoyed music – they would do it anyway. They love music– not it’s what I’ve studied, it’s a job. They’ll hit a chord and it feels good to them – that’s what I enjoy. Chip will come off stage and be thrilled with what he’s heard. I enjoy that. It reminds me of a bible scripture that speaks to us being as little children. Unless this music still excites us continually, we’re not in the place we should be. It should excite us day in and day out, and for me it does. The thing about me is I don’t get tired of songs. If somebody called out My Funny Valentine and I’ve sung it a thousand times, I’m ok with that. Somebody out in the audience is hearing it for the first time, you know? I approach it that way – I think about it that way and there’s something new to be found in every song. John Lee Hooker played the blues his whole life – just a few chord progressions – he did it his entire life, so I mean I can sing a song a few more times.
I2H: I thought Brian Bacchus was a perfect choice of producer for this project. How was it working with him?
GP: It was great – I was looking for a producer who first of all was willing to work the way I wanted to work. I wanted to keep my working band. Since the Grammy® nomination [for the first album, Water], some producers wanted to have me work with some “big names” and I wanted to work with people who know me and want to come along on the journey of music. For me, it’s not about a paycheck – that was essential and I wanted to have a producer who wanted to also work with my arranger and my producer for the last album, Kamau Kenyatta, who for this project was associate producer – he did a great job of communicating my musical ideas in the studio to the band, and helping make musical decisions. Brian’s overall vision of the total project was great – he’s this wise musical person, and has a musical ear and simply says, “Yeah Greg go on in this direction, do that, play this song.” I had several songs to pick from; more than we needed for the CD and of course I was writing up until the last day so Brian said whatever you got, just keep it coming and at the very last moment we’ll decide what to put on this album. He has an easy spirit and he was great with song selection, logistics, shaping the music.
I2H: It’s obvious in the translation – you have such a signature sound and it continued right through this second album – I think it’s such a beautiful piece of work. As a singer, I understand living for the music. It’s my bliss. I never get sick of it. I really appreciate you and what you all do. I wondered after the Grammy® nomination if folks would want to bring in other band members and I had a sense that probably you would stay loyal to your band. It’s a great choice. You can see how everyone has grown together.
GP: It’s a good mix, it’s a good sound. I don’t hear ego on the album either. We’ve been having a good time being friends and making the music.
With Gregory Porter’s impressive second project, I’m certain that Nat King Cole smiles with approval of the high quality songs on this album. Black American Music at its finest. The great American song. I’m here to tell you that great songs are still being created. Just look and listen. Weed through the mediocrity and seek it out – it’s worth the effort. Pick up Be Good and join Greg on his journey. Your heart and your soul will be filled.
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