Legacy is weaved throughout Gregory Porter’s new double album, “Still Rising,” which is loaded up with highlights from his previous recordings and will bring the two-time Grammy-winning vocalist to Boston to perform at Emerson Colonial Theatre on Thursday.
Porter has ample reason to be focused on legacy. He turned 50 in November. But his brother Lloyd Cornelius Porter never reached that age; he died in May 2020 at 49, an early casualty of the COVID pandemic.
“Two things that I’m thinking of, yes: the milestone of 50 and my brother passing,” confirms Porter by phone from Bakersfield, Calif., the hometown he relocated to from New York recently with his wife and young son to be closer to family. “Putting together this record, making the new songs and selecting from my catalog things to reintroduce. Shortly after he passed, I was just looking for something to make me feel normal again.
“Sometimes you write for the consumption of other people. But I found myself needing the lyrics that I said and needing those things to lift me from one of the darkest periods of my life.”
Family history has played a key role in Porter’s career. He hadn’t planned on being a singer, having studied city planning at San Diego State University. (He played football there, too, until a broken shoulder sidelined him his junior year.) But his mother had been a minister, and he had grown up singing in church. On her deathbed, his mother reminded him that he had a talent for music that he should cultivate.
“I was so fully prepared to just be a city planner,” recalls Porter, who was 21 when breast cancer took her. “It’s a very respectable thing to be just a regular guy, but she said, ‘Greg, don’t forget about your music.’ So she sanctioned me. She gave me license to do that. I don’t know if I would have. I would have felt it as disrespecting her if I would have done something wild and artistic and risky.”
Porter moved to Brooklyn, where he worked in his brother’s café, Bread Stuy, while working his way up from neighborhood gigs to ones in Manhattan.
It was at jam sessions at St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem that Porter, while in his late 30s, assembled the band with which he would record his first two albums for Motéma Music, “Water” and “Be Good,” both of which were nominated for Grammys. Two of those band members, pianist Chip Crawford and drummer Emanuel Harrold, are still with him, now joined by saxophonist Tivon Pennicott, organist Ondřej Pivec, and bassist Jahmal Nichols.
Porter has since moved on to Blue Note Records, where his third album, 2013′s “Liquid Spirit,” earned him the first of his two Grammy wins for Best Jazz Vocal Album. But from the beginning his own songwriting and its authentic mix of jazz, gospel, and R&B influences has made his warm baritone voice stand out.
Porter credits this in part to Crawford. “When I write a song, the very first person that I take it to is Chip,” he says. “I don’t know how to stress the importance of a piano player to a singer.” Porter had gone through a bunch of them before finding Crawford to anchor his band and, as importantly, to take Porter’s ideas for new songs seriously. Even one like the quirky but affecting title track from “Be Good,” which examines a man’s unrequited interest in a woman from the perspective of a pining caged lion.
“Sometimes people need to have a famous song in order to play it beautifully,” Porter points out. “He was like, in his mind, ‘Well, it’s not famous, but let’s make it famous.’ And he doesn’t have a genre governor. So if I want to go church, if I want to go 1970s soul, if I want to go even doo-wop — wherever I wanna go, he can go there. And he’s played that music. He has some seasonings, you know. Nearly 70 years old. He played with the Four Tops — that’s him playing on ‘Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got).’
“Sometimes it just takes experience and seasoning and understanding,” he adds. “Chip is white, but he’s played in Black churches for decades. And that understanding was important for me.”
Crawford brushes off Porter’s praise when reached at his home in the Bronx, claiming that Pivec, the band’s Czech organist, is better at playing gospel than he is.
As for Porter, Crawford says: “He’s equally talented in both things — such a gift for vocals and such a gift for songs. It amazes me. I’ve been watching him for 13 years or so since we’ve been working together, and he’s always exploring new things. I can’t keep up with it. He’s got a cooking show. He’s got a podcast.”
Those latter two are recent developments. But Porter has been making music videos for his songs since he began recording, a rarity for a jazz singer. How did he get Motéma’s support for such a thing? With the help of his late brother, who besides running his café was an American Conservatory Theater-trained actor and, in Porter’s words, “a social hub maker in Brooklyn.” The rising filmmakers assembled to do the videos did them on a tight budget as a favor to Lloyd.
“I wasn’t pushing for a video,” explains Porter. “He went to my record label kind of behind my back. He pushed the record label to make ‘1960 What?’ He produced the ‘Be Good’ video. He produced the ‘Liquid Spirit’ video.”
A less happy aspect of family legacy turns up in the recent song “Dad Gone Thing,” which references Porter’s mostly absent father.
“I’m working out my childhood issues,” Porter acknowledges. “The very reason why you’re talking to me is because of something my father gave to me. He didn’t give me a lot. Not how to tie a tie, not how to shave, or how to do anything. But in an interview somebody asked me, ‘Where did you get your singing voice?’ I was like, ‘I’ll be damned. They said my father sang, and I would have to place it there.’ And so ‘he didn’t teach me a dad gone thing but how to sing’ is my way of thanking him for giving me something. My whole life, for 40 years, I said he didn’t give me anything. But as I look at it, the very thing that defines me is something that he gave me. So this is a way of redeeming this painful lack of interest that he had in me.
“I can’t get away from legacy,” he concludes. “We got that word again. It’s there. And it’s in the music. So if you want to find out who I am — if there’s things that you like, if there’s a lyric that has integrity — that’s my mother. Then you like my mother, because she’s there. She’s ‘Liquid Spirit.’ She’s ‘No Love Dying.’ She’s that optimism that I have about love and life and people. She’s ‘Painted on Canvas.’ She didn’t write those songs, but she inspired it. She put that seed in me that makes a song like that.”
At Emerson Colonial Theatre, Jan. 20 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $53.75-$108.75. www.emersoncolonialtheatre.com
Bill Beuttler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.