That list of genres should clue you in that Porter’s no purist, and he’s the only artist in recent memory to be Grammy-nominated for both Best Traditional R&B Performance (for the title track of 2012’s Be Good) and Best Jazz Vocal Album (for his 2010 debut Water and then for Liquid Spirit, which won.)
On top of that, he’s got grounding in musical theatre — in 1999, he was part of the cast of “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” on Broadway, and he frequently mines the Great American Songbook in his shows. While he tends to perform club gigs and has held residencies in upper Manhattan with a quintet, he seems equally comfortable doing Gershwin duets with British neo-soul singer Laura Mvula in front of a full orchestra. At other extremes, he’s collaborated not only with hard blues guitarist Buddy Guy, but with the garage-house-identified U.K. electronic duo Disclosure. “Holding On,” the song he wrote with that group, initially showed up on their 2015 album Caracal; now, a far more organic-sounding version of it leads off Porter’s new fourth album, Take Me to the Alley. A third version, with the Detroit urban adult contemporary crooner Kem, appears as a bonus track.
Porter may be a throwback, but that’s not all he is, and he can be witty about it. On Liquid Spirit, he covered Dobie Gray’s 1965 beach-soul hit “The ‘In’ Crowd” and on Be Good’s warm, extended “On My Way to Harlem,” he consciously placed himself in the lineage of Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye and Langston Hughes.
But he’s also the kind of singer who, 30 years ago, might have actually had pop hits. In the ‘80s, it wasn’t unheard of for Top 40 radio to play songs by Al Jarreau, George Benson, Bobby McFerrin or Grover Washington backing up acknowledged Porter influence Bill Withers, and like Porter, they are all artists operating on the cusp of jazz and R&B. That doesn’t happen so much anymore, although with rappers like Kendrick Lamar re-injecting jazz into hip-hop, anything is possible. So far, Porter’s biggest commercial success has been in Europe: Liquid Spirit went Top 10 in the U.K., Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands.
In fact, if you poke around online for interviews he’s granted, British publications seem to dominate, often puzzling over this large, husky guy’s past life as an “American footballer.” The rotator cuff he injured as a high school linebacker in Bakersfield eventually led him to opt for the singing career that his minister mother encouraged, initially at her storefront Church of God in Christ; that two of his four albums are named Water and Liquid Spirit might have as much to do with baptism as with the fluidity of his sound. Southern blacks transported blues and gospel west to Southern California, but the neighborhood Porter grew up in with his seven siblings was almost entirely white; he once said the Klan set a cross on fire in his front yard.
Born in 1971, Porter had done nearly 40 years of living by the time he put out his first album and family and the strife of life are catalysts for his songs. “1960 What?,” from his debut, is a 12-minute-long, Gil Scott-Heron-style jazz-funk chant revolving around riots that happened in Detroit years before he was born. Take Me to the Alley’s title track, said to be inspired by his mother’s generosity and Pope Francis, starts out echoing The Drifters’ (via George Benson) “On Broadway” then taps the New Testament: “Take me to the afflicted ones/Take me to the lonely ones who somehow lost their way.” But what runs through most of Porter’s lyrics is family — the new album’s fatherly advice blues of “Don’t Lose Your Steam” retells his experience as the dad of a young son despite barely having known his own father. “In Heaven,” the only new track that Porter didn’t have a hand in writing was penned by his cousin Darlene Andrews.
As jazz goes, this music seems unusually accessible, without resorting to kitsch. And it can’t hurt that Porter is an exceptionally sharp dresser, his snappy suits inevitably crowned with his trademark wraparound hat. He’s got the kind of image that would stick with viewers of, say, a late-night talk or awards show. He’s charting several respectable paths to stardom at the same time, and it’s a good bet he’ll get there.