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How Gregory Porter spreads the gospel of jazz

Del Cowie

You may have recently encountered Gregory Porter's smooth, honeyed voice on dance music duo Disclosure's recent single "Holding On," which is not exactly the first place you'd look for a jazz singer.

While a decidedly more jazz-oriented version of the song is featured on Porter's just-released new album Take Me to the Alley, he's very comfortable with his music being aligned with differing genres. Many tracks from his Grammy-winning 2013 album Liquid Spirit were also remixed and repurposed for the dancefloor and different audiences.

Discussing his appearances at European music festivals, Porter states that he'll regularly be slotted "in between One Direction and some massive pop band." For his upcoming slate of Canadian dates starting on June 28, however, Porter will stay within conventional realms, playing jazz festivals in Toronto, Montreal, Victoria and Edmonton.

"I'm approaching all the music as a jazz singer, but not in the sense that, 'OK, now I need to show you I'm a jazz singer,'" he says. "But in the sense of my phrasing, pushing and pulling the lyric, the timing – I'm thinking about those things. Deviating from the melody on a repetitive line. But I don't really care about the title of being a jazz singer. Ultimately it's the story. It's what it is that you are trying to convey to the audience. That's paramount to me."

Given the big tent goal of his music, it's not surprising that the title track from Take Me to the Alley – what Porter calls the emotional centre – is all about reaching out to people. Its roots are firmly tied to his own gospel tradition and the influence of his mother.

"You know she would drive around the city in search of people in need of help" says the Bakersfield, Calif. native about his mother. "So I learned how to sing on the streets, literally. We had a storefront church and she would pull the microphone and amplifier out on the streets, so people could hear me just walking down. People who were addicted to drugs, prostitutes and everyday people is who I learned how to craft my songs with."

Porter's ties to the community remain on Take Me to the Alley. On tracks like "Fan the Flames," he is inspired by recent issues like the protests in Ferguson, Missouri following the death of Michael Brown, and ties them to the historical struggle for civil rights.

"You can lose the validity and sanctity of your argument by violence because they can dismiss you if you raise your hand in violence," he says. "So I say, 'Stand up on your seat with your dirty feet/Raise your fist in the air/But be sweet.' It's just poetry and an homage to the great non-violent protest in the '60s led by Dr. King."

Porter's willingness to address contemporary issues coincides with jazz's resurgent prominence today with artists like Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper – as well as himself – garnering more attention than jazz artists did a few years ago. Porter cites the will of the audience being a crucial factor.

"I was feeling like people were gonna come back to a more soulful expression to something a bit more meaty," he says. "Now, there's a genius in pop. I'm not dismissing any form of music, but there's something grounded and soulful and moving, maybe about love, maybe about the planet. I think people are gonna come back to that and I think that's just what's happening and I don't think it's the artist trying to pander to open up to audiences, this is the experience we come from. It's a living music."

Cognizant of the fact he'll be conveying his growing audience through the lens of a storied jazz history as well as through contemporary avenues, Porter is nevertheless committed to the principles of the music.

"It's a tough, but fun place to be in because you have so many different directions you can go in because the umbrella of jazz is so wide and so large," he says. "I think the new jazz artists are trying to open up the expressions even wider and that's alright. Freedom, ultimately."

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