While performing last year at the Autumn International Music Festival in Prague, jazz singer and bandleader Gregory Porter gave a tantalizing explanation for his song "Magic Cup," a sultry number off of his 2010 debut album Water: "Either it's about coffee, or it's about a woman. I don't know, actually."
But listening to the way Porter belts out the lyrics — and the way saxophonist Yosuke Sato squeals his way through the solo — it's obvious which one he's referring to. "You're a good time/ Make me feel nice," Porter groans. "You are a perfect mix in the morning/ With sugar and spice." Nobody gets this worked up over coffee.
In an age when few taboos remain, Porter chooses to exercise a little restraint. The result is a throwback of a song, full of double-entendres and leaving listeners to wonder what he really means by "grinding beans and steaming cream."
"Unfortunately, it's not so popular today because people just kind of want to tell you right to your face exactly what it is they're talking about: 'Put your leg on me,'" Porter says, speaking by phone from Brooklyn. "But I'm always intrigued by the clever type of writing that was in the '40s through the '70s. They're saying some of the things you can say today, but they did it in a cleverly crafted way, and they used the full spectrum of the words out there to express an emotion or a feeling of desire."
Porter says he wrote "Magic Cup" in a dream, but at other times his writing is more methodical. He credits his love of words to his mother, a minister in Bakersfield, Calif. "I always felt like she spoke poetically," Porter says. "And I love to read. I read poetry, and words and the physical structure of words are attractive to me." Bakersfield was also where Porter started developing his musical taste, which is reflected today in his loving renditions of jazz standards like Nat Adderley's "Work Song" and Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child." In Bakersfield, where he grew up with a lot of transplanted Texas families, he heard music all around him. In church, he remembers hearing a pastor sing "like a gospel Muddy Waters." In the family living room, he and his seven siblings gathered together to hear the new bands on Soul Train. And all around the home, his mother loved to play records by Nat King Cole and Mahalia Jackson.
Porter attended San Diego State University on a football scholarship, but after an injury ended his promising career as a linebacker, he started pursuing his other passion, music, in San Diego jazz clubs. His career really took off once he moved to New York, where he met his current bandmates while playing regular gigs at the historic St. Nick's Pub in Harlem. While Porter's booming voice often takes center stage, it can also act as just another instrument, scatting along with Sato, Chip Crawford (piano), Aaron James (bass), Emanuel Harrold (drums), Keyon Harrold (trumpet), and Tivon Pennicott (tenor sax). Working with them, Porter says he learned the bandleader's secret of how to "encourage a sound rather than dictate a sound," and he found value in maintaining a tight-knit band. When he signed a record deal with Motéma before releasing Water, he had the opportunity to pick up new studio musicians but says he'd already forged a special relationship with his band from St. Nick's Pub.
"If I'm playing a song about my mother, I'll tell a story about my mother before we play the song. And generally, they have an understanding of what that means," Porter says. "That means, 'OK, she was a gospel minister, so maybe there'll be a gospel feeling to the song.'"
Last year, Porter's second album, Be Good, made waves in the jazz world. A standout track, "Real Good Hands," earned a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional R&B Performance this year, but it lost out in the end to Beyoncé's "Love on Top" — an honorable defeat, to be sure. The song has an instant-classic feel to it, starting with a slow-dance piano line and a baritone spoken-word intro that feels straight out of the Marvin Gaye playbook. "Mama don't you worry 'bout your daughter/ 'Cause you're leaving her in real good hands/ I'm a real good man," Porter sings, perfectly evoking the feeling of asking a daughter's hand in marriage.
Porter is married with an infant son now, but to hear him pile on the assurances in the song, you would think he proposed yesterday. He remembers the experience vividly. "My girlfriend's father was essentially challenging me, arguing with me, 'What are your intentions with my daughter?' And I couldn't respond. It was an intense conversation, and I couldn't respond," Porter says. So he left ashamed, but he came back with a song. "That's what I wanted to say to him, but I couldn't say it at the time." Hence the lines for the father, bold but respectful: "Papa don't you fret and don't forget that one day/ You was in my shoes/ Somehow you paid your dues/ Now you're the picture of the man/ That I someday want to be." If this song doesn't make it onto the standard playlist of first-dance wedding songs, there is no justice in the world of music.