Alleys are typically found in cities, shady back streets where the most minimal of the masses cower for cover. We took Gregory Porter to Tin Pan alley, in Soho, London, a street famous for servicing musicians since the 17th century. Here we recorded the moment like a gift, wrapped in light on a camera older than all of us. Like the title of his new album Take Me To The Alley, we took him to an alley and then went on a short walk to IF MUSIC record shop and here we conversed.
We spoke about the journey he had to undertake to become this century’s most successful Jazz singer, and as we recalled the pioneers of yesteryear and their desire to record life, both on film and on record, we discovered a gentle giant. A man who through endurance showed no spiritual scars, even after selling the rights for his album to pay a months rent. Shoveling corn into an industrial food blender for a pet food manufacturer and forced to walk out on the job because he heard his mothers voice telling him he was better than that. But the story that stuck most vivid in our minds is of the angry foreman, chastising Gregory Porter because he isn’t shoveling fast enough, because he is trying to separate the poisoned rats that fill this corn silo from the corn. Because he cares more than anyone I know about how you’re doing today. He’s that guy. It makes you wonder just how many people are working jobs that aren’t conducive to their God given talents. Like many African Americans of his generation, Gregory is totally disheartened by the bi-partisan political rhetoric that derides black life, making democratic dystopia the new normal.
Articulate and deliberate in his manner of speaking, Gregory exudes a patience in every word. When asked to introduce himself, borrowing from Sam Cooke, Gregory sets his birthplace firmly amongst one of the soul greats, steeped in the history of a time when hope that a change was gonna come, changed the course of history. “Gregory Porter, was born by the river, in a little tent, just like the river, I’ve been running ever since. I’m Gregory Porter, I’m a jazz singer, jazz is informed by gospel, blues and soul music, unafraid to borrow from all the diaspora’s of the music, cousins of the music.”
We speak to Gregory a day after arguably the greatest engineer in jazz music passed away, the name Rudy Van Gelder evokes a lineage of music recorded on labels such as Impulse! Records, Blue Note Records, Prestige Records, CTI and Verve records. Asking what a Rudy Van Gelder record evoke’s, Gregory paints a picture of not only the music but the spirit.
These are the same people who suffered lack and denial and extreme negativity but their brilliance is documented on record and it can’t be denied.
For me I think of it in this interesting way, about how he used the recording studio to document black life, and not to make it exclusive of any one people. But I remember as a little boy, listening to Blue Note records and I remember how proud I felt upon looking at the photography and listening to the music. Thinking of these artists the way I thought of preachers, ministers, at the time, they seemed to carry the same weight and power, big hands in a way, big necks, huge personalities, extraordinary dressers…. and skills, and dignity in a way that was captured and expressed, it’s undeniable genius and beauty. You listen to that music and these are the same people who suffered lack and denial and extreme negativity but their brilliance is documented on record and it can’t be denied.
So it’s in that way, I just remember looking at the sleeves photographs and being so proud and maybe in a way seeing myself and so in a way, he documented a beautiful part of American life which is black life. It’s a gorgeous piece of American life, that I think of it that way. Yes I think of it musically, but the music came from somewhere and in the pictures and in the music you hear and feel culture, you just do and it comes from somewhere.
They didn’t try to cultivate it, they tried to capture it, the genius of what he did is what I try to do, not comparing myself in anyway, I try to eliminate the microphone. I try to eliminate the microphone in terms of getting to the ear. You’re not really concerned about mic placement, you hear everything that’s there and you don’t even think of it. It’s so in your living room, you don’t even think of it. That’s the genius of doing it right, is that you don’t notice it. As an artist you try to achieve that in the microphone and in communicating to the listeners ear. I listen to those records and I feel like there’s nothing in the way, they’re in the living room.
Gregory has emerged as a jazz great in his mid 40’s, fairly late in life compared to other contemporaries in music, so why did it take so long? Gregory made one record ‘Tomorrow People’ in ’99 which was “literally recorded in a garage”, and then there was radio silence… where was Gregory till 2011? It’s not easy to get on a label, not easy to get your voice out there and that’s already a challenge if you’re a young artist, despite all the access to social media. The reality for Gregory was in facing an ageist industry where no one was really looking to invest in an artist of his generation, making it that much harder to get out there, harder to find the money when you’re 30 and nobody knows you.
“People were coming to my gigs, I was performing and people were coming and they were like we just heard this thing live, where can we get your records, there must be 4, 5, 10 of them. I was like no, I don’t have the record yet and they were like “what!”. So after hearing that for years and then moving to New York and being around this international audience from Italy and Japan, and Germany and Austria and they’re like “when are you coming?”. I was like well if you’re coming into this little club in Harlem and you have a thirst and a hunger for more of this then I probably would be ok if I came over there. Probably somebody would come, somebody would listen.
‘Liquid Spirit’ the very lyric says watch what happens when the people catch wind of water hitting the banks of that hard dry land. That lyric means watch what happens if you let them hear my music. I think of it as love, watch what happens when the people catch wind of water hitting the banks. Cos those people aren’t being served right now, that ear’s not being served of that soulful approach.”
If you call me a blues singer that’s the highest compliment, if you call me an R&B singer that’s the highest compliment, if you call me gospel singer that’s the highest compliment.
The meaning of the next lyric, the people haven’t drank in so long the water won’t even make mud. They haven’t heard it in so long, they’re like it’s gonna take them a minute to recognise it , they’re gonna call it something else, “oh that’s just R&B”, “That’s just…”. Let me tell you they’re gonna give it a bunch of names that they think is derogatory. If you call me a blues singer that’s the highest compliment, if you call me an R&B singer that’s the highest compliment, if you call me gospel singer that’s the highest compliment.”
Ultimately it was an international audience who with their persistence in pursuing Gregory to make music and tour abroad, that gave him the confidence to take a leap of faith. But nothing happened overnight, it took almost 11 years for Gregory to get to that first release on his first label. “Motema. It’s American, it’s a small label, not particularly steeped in Harlem, it just so happened that the office happened to be in Harlem.”
Then UK label, Expansion licensed the music in 2012 and by pressing vinyl, jazz dance dj’s started hammering the record and it’s also the time when IFmusic began posting reviews asking when a label like Blue Note, were going to sign this guy. “It took a minute, Blue Note were gonna come in and buy ‘Be Good’ and they were like, “oh we don’t wanna be the big nasty giant and just you know” but they probably should have in order to get the energy out there. I would have liked to have had a larger audience for ‘On My Way To Harlem’, you know. It’s all good though.”
Eventually Blue Note signed Gregory, “Yeah, ‘Liquid Spirit’ my first Blue Note record,” going on to reach certified gold status in the UK with 100,000 plus units sold, according to Gregory since it’s release it’s just kept going, “Liquid Spirit” sold over 300,000 about 350,000 here.”
Timing is everything, and there’s been something of a renaissance in Jazz. We’ve had Robert Glasper with god knows how many albums, and although his first few were not on vinyl, the label eventually saw the light and from there everything flowed beautifully. Kamasi Washington made his ‘Epic’ pushing his sound into the limelight after his collaboration with Kendrick Lamar. And now we’ve got Binker & Moses, we’ve got Mathew Halsall and we’re talking about a great time in Jazz, who could have predicted this 10 years ago. Gregory’s recent album ‘Take Me To The Alley’ debuted top 5 in the UK album chart, again certifying his place as the biggest selling Jazz vocalist of this age.
Despite the big bad label mantra of the DIY age, it’s undeniable that the label engine has helped propel Gregory to a wider audience and taken his voice around the globe. But with every album he’s made there’s always been that one track that just nails it. On his latest album, the standout track ‘In Fashion’ raises goosebumps with every lyrics, melody structure and beat, everything is just perfection. It’s a wonder whether Gregory is conscious of how sublime his music really is.
“I thought ‘In Fashion’ would be the song that the label would do something with, and they haven’t messed with it as in terms of a single yet. But I was like that’s probably the tune I can even see a video. But that’s not the one they messed with, so it has to be a collaborative thing between the artist and the label. I know the first thing that happens with the music is how it makes me feel first and I don’t mean to dismiss the audience. The funny thing about the music is it comes through me first and if it can do something to the human body, it does it to me, I get chills. I don’t wanna make it sound like as a narcissistic thing and I’m squeezing my own nipples but I feel good first, then the audience get’s it. So I get it if it makes them feel good. I always just hope that it has the same affect on them as it does on me.”
Taking his voice to a higher place through the highest school of learning, Gregory has reached the right place and the right people. For an ageist industry, Gregory’s fans are beyond genres and beyond age and there’s now such a thing as the Gregory Porter effect going on.
I love that I can get to the daughter, the mama and grandpa, it happens a lot, I see that generational thing happen a lot – I like that.
“Music, the family of music, you wasn’t supposed to separate the cousin from the brother, from the daddy, you ain’t supposed to do that, it’s one family. Now I understand for categorisation I understand, but for the listener, and for the proper listener, the soulful listener, they put on Marvin Gaye, then they put on Miles, that’s the way I listen to music. And then they’ll put on some hip hop and it’s ok and it’s not wrong. But somehow it’s fantastically wrong in radio and television. It doesn’t make sense. I tend to think that in the UK in terms of diversity of music, that’s played, it’s WIDE.”
“I think here people are accepting when they hear a soulful expression and they’re like “yeah I’ll take that”. “I’ll take that, I’ll take that”. You know, and they can get with the soul, this audience is interesting. I like the fact that, at my shows in the UK, the age range is so dope.”
“I love that I can get to the daughter, the mama and grandpa, it happens a lot, I see that generational thing happen a lot – I like that.”
Watch the live footage from Gregory’s recent UK appearance Radio 2 Live in Hyde Park. Gregory Porter’s ‘Take Me To The Alley’ is out now on Decca.