Singapore International Jazz Festival 2014: Tunes from the heart

With a recent Grammy win and rave reviews for his live shows and three albums, American singer and songwriter Gregory Porter is one of the fastest rising names in the jazz world today.

Critics have compared him with past greats such as Nat King Cole and Bill Withers. Still, Porter, 42, is not letting it go to his head.

"You have to be careful with all the praise because I can only be myself and continue to be myself. At some point, I'll do something the jazz or music media doesn't like, but I have to continue to be me," he tells Life! in a telephone interview from his home in Brooklyn.

"And that's all I can be. I'll just continue to be organic with the music I make and that's enough for me. I am thankful for the strong reviews and comparisons to the masters I've listened to my entire life. They're amazing compliments, but I'm going to continue to be grounded, and just make music I'm hearing in my heart."

His third album, Liquid Spirit, won the Best Jazz Vocal Album prize at the Grammy Awards last month - his first Grammy win. Before that, his debut album Water (2010) was nominated in the same category at the 2011 Grammys while his sophomore album, Be Good (2012), was nominated in the Best Traditional R&B Performance category last year.

"It was a very special moment," he says of clinching the prize. "As a musician, a vocalist, a singer, it's something you dream about, but it's nothing you try for - you can't try for a Grammy. It's an artistic decision when they choose you.

"When they called my name, it took the breath out of me."

While his songs have been classified as both jazz and R&B, he himself describes them as "a mix of love songs, songs of human experience and contemplation, a little bit of protest but soulful music under the umbrella of jazz".

"When I write a song, I'm not thinking of what genre this will be," says Porter on not limiting his style.

"But when I perform the song, I will deviate from the melody after the first time singing it. I will sing in front of the beat, sing behind it. I'll play with time, with phrasing. All the things you do in any jazz standard, you can do in an original song as well because, quite frankly, many songs that were sung in jazz weren't intended to be jazz songs in the first place. They were for the stage, for musical theatre."

Born in Southern California, Porter and his seven siblings were raised by a single mother who was a preacher. He credits his mother, who could sing opera, as well as the church choirs he grew up in for giving him his early education in music.

He was also a dedicated sportsman, excelling at basketball, and went to San Diego State University on a football scholarship.

Sidelined by a shoulder injury, he turned to singing in jazz clubs. He joined the cast of the musical It Ain't Nothin' But The Blues in 1994, which toured the US and had a Tony- nominated run on Broadway in 1999.

Staying on in New York, he made his rounds in the city's jazz clubs. A 2011 review in The New York Times raved about his "expressive physicality" and "sturdy baritone", calling him "most of what you want in a male jazz singer, and maybe a thing or two you didn't know you wanted".

Eventually, he landed a recording deal with jazz and world music label Motema Music, which released his first album. He later signed with iconic jazz label, Blue Note Records, which released his second and third albums.

A late bloomer who released his debut album at the age of 39, Porter says he has good reason for waiting so long. "I was trying to find the money and, in a way, it took maybe that amount of time to gain the confidence to write and to sing your own songs. I needed some time to cultivate my voice and what it is I wanted to say," he says.

His evening set at the Marina Bay Sands' Event Plaza this Sunday is part of a concert that also features Roberta Gambarini, Roy Hargrove, Earth, Wind & Fire Experience and UK Jazz Masters featuring Alemay Fernandez and Richard Jackson.

"There is so much history and culture in Singapore. I'm very excited about that. I want to see the amazing buildings and incredible food." Music aside, the other distinctive thing about Porter is the way he looks: The burly singer is never seen without his trademark hat and balaclava-like headgear that wraps the sides of his head.

"It's just my style," says Porter. "There must be some traditional dress in Singapore that is like specific only to people of a certain region, you know what I mean? I'm not trying to make my little hat as important as that, but it's just my thing, I wear it whether it's cold or warm.

"It makes me feel comfortable and I don't think it gives any extra powers to my voice, but maybe it does," he says with a laugh.

Married to a Russia-born artist with whom he has a one-year-old son, Porter says what is more important is his music and the message in his songs. "I don't really care about the technical definitions of what it is that I do. I want people to feel my humanity and the message I would like to get across after all the songs that I've written, sang and performed.

"I would like them to come away with the idea of mutual respect. That's something I want to get across in my music."

dinohadi@sph.com.sg

Life! is the official media partner of the Singapore International Jazz Festival.

Book it:

SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL JAZZ FESTIVAL 2014

What: Gregory Porter, Roberta Gambarini, Roy Hargrove, Earth, Wind & Fire Experience and UK Jazz Masters featuring Alemay Fernandez and Richard Jackson

Where: Event Plaza, Marina Bay Sands

When: Sunday, from 5.30pm

Admission: For advanced booking, $88 (concession, free standing), $98 (free standing), $106 (concession), $118 and $280 (VIP) from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555), EventClique (tickets.eventclique.com) and Marina Bay Sands box offices. Three-day packages ranging from $238 to $756 are also available from Sistic. For tickets at the door, $106 (concession, free standing), $118 (free standing), $115 (concession), $128 and $280 (VIP)

Info: www.sing-jazz.com

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