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Soulful spirit

Grammy-winning vocalist blurs the lines between genres

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"I'm a jazz singer and I embrace that warmly," Gregory Porter says.

The winner of the Grammy award for best jazz vocal album elaborates in a telephone interview from his New York home, explaining the influences of soul, gospel and the blues -- "music I've been steeped in" -- on his style.

"I'm just a soulful jazz singer," he says.

Winnipeg jazz fans can hear it all on June 18, when Porter headlines one of the mainstage shows at the 25th Winnipeg International Jazz Festival.

The Grammy he won earlier this year for the album Liquid Spirit had just arrived in the mail, the singer said, and while it has enhanced his public profile, it also cost him holiday time.

"I had a pretty busy schedule before, but after the Grammy win, it filled up the few weeks I had for vacation," he says with a chuckle, relaxing after a European tour and before heading out for a handful of Canadian dates and a return trip to Europe.

"I couldn't have fathomed the response to Liquid Spirit. In Germany, it's topping the charts. People are absorbing it."

Porter grew up listening to his mother's Nat King Cole records and developed his own love for Cole's music.

But he also cites a string of influences, including Motown singer Marvin Gaye, Lalah Hathaway, Abbey Lincoln ("for her singing and approach to lyrics, and her style of political writing") and "a bunch of singers who've never been heard -- outside of church, say -- or recorded."

Porter has performed in musical theatre, in a lead role in It Ain't Nothing But the Blues, but has put the stage on the back burner to focus on music.

"In a way theatre kind of kept me from getting a musical career going earlier," he explains, noting theatre jobs usually run three to six months. "That takes you away from concentrating on creating a singing career," which is what he moved to New York nine years ago to achieve.

While Porter's Winnipeg show will include music from Liquid Spirit, his third album and first for the Blue Note label, it will also include music from 2010's Water and 2012's Be Good and "anything that tickles my fancy," he says.

The In Crowd, the 1965 crossover hit for pianist Ramsey Lewis, is one of things that tickles Porter's fancy.

"Ramsey Lewis was playing that song in a place where I was: gospel, blues, a heavy dose of jazz. That's where I hear myself. That's one song I chose when I knew (the recording) was to be on Blue Note. It has an organic blurring of the lines," he says.

Porter wrote a dozen songs on Liquid Spirit and will continue to concentrate on composing as well as tackling his favourite tunes from the American Songbook.

"But if there's something inside I want to get across," he will write it, he says.

Porter's career path might have gone a different way, however. He went to university with an eye on a football career, but an injury put an end to that.

"I probably would have come to music a lot later if not for the injury," he says. "My mother had cancer, I had the injury, and I was suffering from depression, in a way."

To cope with that, he went to jam sessions and listened to a lot of music. He started performing in public and caught the attention of Blue Note president Don Was, who complimented Porter's style and offered up heavy doses of encouragement before signing him.

"Things have lined up for me recently," says Porter, who, in addition to being signed to the storied Blue Note label and his Grammy win, has just been included in Downbeat's list of the 80 coolest things in jazz today, a list that celebrates the magazine's 80th year.

And another cool thing about Porter? His headwear, a modified flat cap, that has become a trademark, although he didn't set out for it to be.

"I was making soup before my music career and I wore it then," he says, "It's just my style; it's just my thing."

Now that it has appeared on three album covers, "I have to keep the style."

chris.smith@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 12, 2014 C3

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