The upstairs room at an old plantation house on the Caribbean island of Curacao was insufferably hot. But jazz vocalist Gregory Porter was cool and collected, even while wearing his trademark winter cap. Known for his silky smooth voice and socially conscious lyrics, Porter has reason to be confident. His first album, “Water,” garnered critical acclaim and a Grammy nomination for the 2010 Best Vocal Jazz album. This February, he released his second album, “Be Good.” And now, he’s in the Caribbean to perform at the annual Curacao Jazz Festival.
“I think one of the definitions of jazz is a music that pushes the boundaries,” he says, while getting ready for his performance, “It is a protest music. That doesn’t put a bitter taste in my mouth at all. All of the great music: classical, country, the best of it pushed a little bit.”
One of Porter’s most popular original tunes is “On My Way to Harlem.” In it, he extols the African American history of Harlem and implicitly criticizes gentrification as well-to-do whites are moving into the neighborhood.
“It’s considering Harlem and what it is,” he says. “I’m not specifically speaking to black people. I’m speaking about the world. Harlem has given the world great music, and great poetry, great art. How does that happen? It happens because of the institutions that are in the area, because of the churches, because of the jazz clubs, because of the people, because of the jazz clubs, the street swagger, and the sound of Harlem.”
Porter says he also plumbs his own life experiences to create original ballads. “Be Good,” also known as “The Lion’s Song,” imagines him as a caged lion who tries to change to please a mate. He started out playing mostly old standards, so playing original music is a different experience for him.
“Sometimes I wouldn’t announce that I had written it,” says Porter, “but now it’s out there for people to respond: Who is Be Good? Why did she do you like that? Why did she put you in that cage?”
“Be Good” is available now on Motema Music. Listen closely. You’re going to hear a lot more from this talented vocalist in coming years.
Hear more Jazz Perspectives at www.jazzcorner.com/innerviews.