The cat in the hat

Tell anyone who knows his music that you’re meeting the American vocalist Gregory Porter and they’ll say, “Ask him about the hat”. The fast-rising singer-songwriter never appears on- or off-stage without the headgear that, from a distance, looks like a homespun take on some kind of equestrian gear. “It’s my jazz hat ... my jazz blankie,” Porter tells me. “It’s part Kangol Summer Spitfire, with the brim turned up, and part my own creation. But the deep secret of why ... we’ll keep that a secret.”

Apart from the hat, the first thing people comment on is the voice. Porter’s baritone is rich and his diction clear, projected by the kind of powerful stage presence you associate with a long-established star turn. Unknown until 2010, when he released his first album, Water, the 41-year-old Californian is about to make his Blue Note debut with the album Liquid Spirit, and when he returns to the UK in July it will be to follow Esperanza Spalding on to the main stage of the talent-laden Love Supreme Festival at Glynde Place, Sussex.

Porter and I meet backstage at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, after he’s wound down from a barnstorming set. “The CD was written from moments of travel,” he says. “When you’re constantly at interviews, it causes you to think about who you are ... your personal feelings about life end up coming up into your music.”

Those “personal feelings” range from love songs to political comment and philosophical observation. The title track of the new CD is both an indictment of the commodification of water and a celebration of the human spirit. “The start of the song is ‘unreroute the rivers ... so let the liquid spirit free’,” he says. “The song is about culture, soul, love – power, in a way.” When he performs it, as at Cheltenham, each layer of meaning is made explicit.

Porter’s best-known song is probably “1960 What?”, referring to the 1960s US riots, from his first album. On stage, he makes it feel like an eyewitness account, even though he was not born until 1971. The song’s roots lie in his mother and uncles’ memories of the events. “It’s a dinner-table conversation,” says Porter, though he immediately points out the song’s contemporary relevance. “I’m not saying I need to sit and wallow in the sorrow of the condition of black people. But there’s a legacy to that history ... there’s a reason why these young men don’t value their lives. Somebody else didn’t value their lives.”

Porter loves the brevity and depth of the blues and admires the passion of jazz vocalist Andy Bey – “he’s yelling at the establishment, in a way,” Porter says, though he himself never “yells” and his songs are tender as well as righteous and wry.

“On My Way to Harlem” tackles the complexities of gentrification; the line “Langston Hughes doesn’t live here any more” is sung with regret for both a lost past and the knowledge that “a lot of young Harlemites don’t know who Langston Hughes was”. The autobiographical “Real Good Hands” describes a young man convincing a girlfriend’s parents he’s a safe bet, while “Be Good” concerns the vulnerability of men. That idea came to Porter while he was cycling through Brooklyn after a girlfriend dumped him at a party: “It’s a grown man’s lullaby that I wrote for myself.”

Porter, who grew up in Bakersfield, California, didn’t consider singing as a career until a shoulder injury laid him low. “I was on a football scholarship at San Diego State University,” he recalls. “I tried to rehab and get back into action, but it wouldn’t heal. They still offered to give me my scholarship, but I wouldn’t be able to play.” Porter was devastated; his mother, though, was thrilled, knowing he would get a scholarship without the risk of getting hit on the head.

Porter, then 21 and studying city planning, used the extra time to study theatre, go to jazz clubs and sit in on jam sessions – as a child he’d sung in amateur productions and in pieces staged by the church where his mother was a minister. But two years later his mother, who had raised the family single-handed, died of breast cancer, and everything went on hold.

“I had a couple, maybe three years mourning her death,” Porter says. It took him a year to re-engage with music, encouraged by some of his mother’s final words. “She kind of knew it was her time ... and she was trying to impart some wisdom. She did tell me to sing – ‘it’s the best thing you do, so sing’. ”

Back on track, he built up his first professional experience in theatre and in 1996 he got a lead role in the Denver debut of It Ain’t Nothing But the Blues, which transferred to Broadway before touring. Porter also wrote and performed a tribute to Nat King Cole. “In the absence of my father, I would listen to Nat King Cole as a child, and imagine him as my father and think of the songs in that way.”

There were other shows, but once Porter settled in the Bedford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn, he concentrated on jazz. Jam sessions, residencies and overseas tours as a sideman followed and he worked with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Even so, when he was back in New York, he found time to help out at his brother’s coffee shop. “I was the soup man,” he says. “People loved my borscht,” referring to a recipe he picked up on one of his many tours to eastern Europe.

Now his touring schedule is so packed that his soup-making skills are on hold. He still uses the same band he met during jam sessions at St Nick’s pub in Harlem, and, after eight years of honing Porter’s repertoire, they are as much a part of him as the hat. “They know the stories behind my little songs,” says Porter. “I’m just trying to be soulful and thoughtful and really organic.”

The Love Supreme Festival runs from July 5-7

‘Liquid Spirit’ is released by Blue Note on September 2

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