Jazz vocalist Gregory Porter offers five songs he loves to sing, along with the reasons why.
Author Elisabeth Vincentelli Photography Andy Sheppard
Grammy-winning jazzman Gregory Porter is blessed with a creamy baritone and flawless technique, which you can check out on tour this month through the end of the year, including dates in Europe, the U.K. and the Southern U.S. But what really sets him apart is that he wrote most of his three albums, a daring feat in a vocal-jazz world where standards are the norm. Here, Porter picks five numbers—covers and originals—that hold special meaning for him.
This melancholy hit opened Porter’s 2004 stage tribute Nat King Cole and Me—A Musical Healing. “My mother asked me to do ‘that nature song’ [a standard which was popularized by Cole] in church when I was 12,” Porter, now 42, recalls. “I was like, ‘But it’s not a gospel song!’ Then I realized it didn’t need to be. It’s just a great message.”
“On My Way to Harlem”
This self-penned track, from 2012’s Be Good, gives Porter a lot of room to maneuver, as he showed recently at a French music festival: “Normally I sing, ‘Marvin Gaye used to play right here,’ but [instead] I said, ‘Little Stevie Wonder [who also was on the bill] used to play right here.’ He heard it from his dressing room!”
“No Love Dying”
Porter’s Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant inspired this song off 2013’s Liquid Spirit. “I see these young boys, and they have a kind of hopelessness,” the singer observes. “So it was an energetic message to them. I don’t hand them a CD and say, ‘Track No. 4 is for you.’ It’s just something I put out in the universe for them.”
This Porter original opens the singer’s critically acclaimed 2010 debut album, Water. “The thing that was vexing to me was, ‘Why would anybody care how I feel?’” he says of the song, which speaks of lost love. “The song is also kind of poetic and musically asymmetrical, so I was wondering if people would dig it. And they did!”
“I Fall in Love Too Easily”
Sinatra popularized this Liquid Spirit closer, but it still hits home for Porter. “With standards, you have to find the fuel that makes that fire burn in the music. Often it’s something that carries an emotional weight for you that the audience can’t figure out.” He laughs. “They don’t have to know everything!”
Elisabeth Vincentelli is chief theater critic at the New York Post. She has also contributed to both the New York and Los Angeles Times, as well as Salon, Slate and The Believer.