From the tiny jazz houses in Harlem to symphony stages in Europe, Gregory Porter is a rare gem in the sea of American music. The voice of our time, his baritone makes you feel the full gamut of emotions—crying, smiling, laughing, and dancing like no one is watching—in a single song. After five albums and two Grammys, it’s amazing that a concert coming up this Monday, February 10, will be his first-ever visit to Verizon Hall.
An unforgettable presence
Six-five and dressed to the nines—the classic Kangol with a twist, a dashing pocket square—and a smile that brightens the room like the morning sun in the African sky, Porter's presence is unforgettable. His voice is a throwback to a time in music history when voices were rich and stories were as authentic as Georgia moonshine. His interpretation of jazz, gospel, blues, and soul make him a masterful storyteller with melodies as the soulful backdrop. Sultry, uplifting, defiant, tearful, and undeniably spiritual, his words speak volumes from love to social injustice. From football player to chef to Broadway to the Grammys and beyond, Porter’s journey has stops as diverse as his musical talents.
The stories in the music
Profound stories of love found, love lost, Black life, politics, and family are prominent in his work. Even his reworking of classic tunes always manages to bring something new. If you follow music and magical voices, then you know about Porter. But it is impossible to talk about the singing without the lyrics.
One of his first hits on 2010’s Water, his debut studio album, is "1960 What?" It’s about stories on the streets of Detroit and the pain and tragic deaths of Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and other civil rights leaders of that era. The song speaks to the rage and injustice then and now. Porter says the title track of his 2013 album, Liquid Spirit, is a metaphor for water—a theme throughout his first three records. The lyrics “Un-reroute the rivers and let the dammed waters be, there’s some people down the way that’s thirsty” are a metaphor for people needing good music.
Another Liquid Spirit song, “Musical Genocide,” is a deep introspection, asking what is music without soul music? The song pays homage to the great soul singers of our time by soulfully singing and chanting their names. His latest album, 2017’s Nat King Cole & Me, is not mimicry; it’s a true tribute album to one of the greats. Porter’s deep-feeling approach to the music shows us his level of respect and why we need music for our soul.
A superb band
What makes the magic in the music? Perhaps the cohesiveness and Southern and Midwest swag of his musicians. For his upcoming stop at the Kimmel, Porter will be accompanied by his superb band, one of the best in the business. Coming from a long-standing musical family and tradition in St. Louis, drummer Emanuel Harrold has been with the band since its inception. Renowned bassist Jahmal Nichols joins him. On piano, veteran musician Chip Crawford always brings more beauty to the music.
“We’ve been trying to make the schedule work for the past few years, and now we are thrilled to have him perform this year,” says Kimmel senior programming director Fran Egler of the show. The Kimmel team has working with closely with Visit Philadelphia, she adds, and “for the last 10 years, we have worked hard to build stronger jazz and musical theater programming through education and presenting.”
Porter rose to great fame in 2014 with a Grammy win for Best Jazz Vocal Album for Liquid Spirit, and landed another for 2016’s Take Me to the Alley. The latter album broke records by becoming the first jazz album to make it into the Billboard top five in more than a decade.
For those of us who were working, playing, writing, and following the Harlem jazz scene of the 2010s, it is especially gratifying to watch Porter’s rise to international fame and mainstream music. We remember the classic Harlem hangs, the jam sessions; Lenox Lounge and St. Nick’s Pub, and even the lesser-known, short-lived clubs like Creole. All gone, but never forgotten. We can rest assured that Porter keeps those venues alive in spirit with each and every performance.
Don’t let the velvety-smooth voice fool you. While Porter is the go-to jazz and soul crooner for some fans, others are inspired by the Southern blues-style gospel infusing his melodic stories and know him for his weekend dance parties and workout playlists. BBC referred to Porter as the “jazz singer on the dance scene.” The vibes emanating from Opolopo’s remix of “1960 What?” and the Grammy-award winning Liquid Spirit rival any hand-clapping, toe-tapping gospel hymn. Porter’s music has been remixed by some of the top DJs and producers in the industry. How often do you hear a top-10 jazz artist on the same charts as a top-10 pop-duo dance tune, singing with the beauty and sincerity of Nat King Cole? Gregory Porter can.
What, When, Where
Gregory Porter is coming to the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall, 300 S. Broad St., Philadelphia, Monday, February 10, 2020, at 7:30pm. (215) 893-1999 or kimmelcenter.org.
The Kimmel Center is an ADA-compliant venue. Patrons can purchase wheelchair seating or loose chairs online, by calling Patron Services at (215) 893-1999, or by emailing [email protected] With advance notice, Patron Services can provide options for personal care attendants, American Sign Language, Braille tickets and programs, audio descriptions, and other services.