His warm, expressive baritone fills a small room without crowding it. That same voice expands to the farthest reaches of an open-air arena seating thousands, without losing any of its potency. Whether you’re up close or in the cheap seats, it seems that Gregory Porter is singing for you, that he knows you. You leave feeling good, as if you’ve gotten a dose of medicine you didn’t know you needed.
Small wonder Porter’s star is rising fast, that he’s spending just one night (this Sunday) at the Dakota in Minneapolis, that his crazy touring schedule takes him from a jazz cruise one day and flies him to Sweden the next.
Three weeks ago, the soul-jazz singer/songwriter won a Grammy Award when “Liquid Spirit,” his first album for the fabled Blue Note label, was named best jazz vocal album. He earned Grammy nominations for his previous two albums, “Water” and “Be Good.” His admirers include Wynton Marsalis, Dianne Reeves and Jamie Cullum. His style and charisma are compared to Bill Withers, Lou Rawls and Marvin Gaye.
A burly former linebacker — his college football career was sidelined by a shoulder injury, which nudged him toward music — Porter talks about his feelings as easily as most men talk about, well, football. Most of his songs are originals, drawn from personal experience. His lyrics seem conversational and unaffected, but they’re layered with meaning and metaphor.
“Liquid Spirit,” the hand-clapping, gospel-infused title track from his Grammy winner, sounds like a song about faith and renewal, but it’s really about the music industry. People are thirsty for music that touches them, Porter is saying. Stop with the targeted demographics and let music find its own audience. “Unreroute the rivers,” he sings. “Let the liquid spirit free.”
Porter’s song “Water” includes a line about gumdrops washing down gutters.
“There are some things that people chew on for so long and they need to get rid of,” Porter says. “So I’m basically saying, spit it out and let the water wash it away.”
“Painted on Canvas” could be about creativity, but it’s about mutual respect. On casual listening, “Be Good (Lion’s Song)” is a lilting waltz of a love song; in fact, it’s about being dumped. “The song is in 3/4 time because [the woman is] from Vienna, and also because I needed a lullaby to soothe my grown-man heart.”
Porter is, refreshingly, a grown man, writing songs for grown-ups, telling stories from his life that resonate with his audiences, singing with a confidence that “comes from understanding that I can only be me. I think that’s what people want to see — you being you,” he says.
“I used to be fearful about who I am — the sound of my voice, was I smart enough, clever enough.” Somewhere along the way, he got over that, and today he commands a room like very few singers can.
Raised in Bakersfield, Calif., without a father (his parents divorced before he was born), Porter has a deep, abiding love for his mother, a minister in storefront churches who raised eight children on her own. She had a trove of Nat King Cole records that the kids weren’t supposed to touch; he started stealing them around age 5 and traces his precise diction to Cole. Porter’s mother died 20 years ago, a fact that still surprises him.
“For the first five years, when someone would ask me when she died, I said, ‘Last year.’ And I sincerely meant it. When I say 20 years — and I don’t think I’ve ever said that before — I think, that’s got to be wrong. She’s so fresh and so right there in my head and in my thoughts.”
Several of his songs, including “When Love Was King” and “Water,” were inspired by her. When he sings the Johnny Mercer-Henry Mancini standard “Moon River,” he says, “it’s not about ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ at all. It’s about this force that’s near me, wiser than I am, guiding me through life.”
Porter’s Dakota date — his first time in Minnesota — is near enough to Valentine’s Day that it seems fair to ask if he’s motivated by love. “I am,” he says. “All aspects of it. Even when love is challenged.”
How does he make such a strong emotional connection with his audience? “I’ve always been a person who feels other people’s emotions. It’s my desire to get close to people. That’s just my approach. It happens even in places where the majority of the audience doesn’t speak English. No matter what, people open up.”