When Gregory Porter spoke to The Bakersfield Californian early last year, he and his family were just getting settled into their new house after moving back to Bakersfield. A year later, he’s finding his groove — or at least one that his hectic schedule will permit.
“It’s been quite nice,” Porter said in a phone interview from Amsterdam. “My family’s there and we’ve had great holidays. My son has settled in to his school that’s accommodating to his style … I can come and, quite frankly after being on the road intensely, I can rest.”
“It’s been actually very, very cool and everything is accessible. I mean, Bakersfield has what it has, but what it doesn’t have, L.A. is right there. Literally, I travel 8,000 miles to go to work, so traveling 200 miles to go and play is not that big of a deal for me.”
(He has a short trip Saturday, performing at a sold-out benefit concert for Habitat for Humanity Golden Empire at Cal State Bakersfield's Dore Theatre.)
Porter has also settled into an awards groove, picking up his second best jazz vocal album Grammy for his 2016 album “Take Me to the Alley." Now, Porter can add the esteemed title of “multiple Grammy Award winner” to his resume. Winning that award has given him a symbolic return home to book-end his actual one.
“I think the validation with the second Grammy (shows) I’m on the right track with my style and approach of music; of really harvesting from my personal experience,” Porter said. “Bakersfield is included in that personal experience.”
“… The alley (in ‘Take Me to the Alley’) is in Bakersfield. Lakeview Avenue. When I was a kid, it’s the place where my mother worked.”
Porter said he’s glad to use his memories to enhance his music: “I went to the roots of me and that became my success. It feels good.”
Those roots also took hold in his latest endeavor, “Nat King Cole & Me,” a tribute to his makeshift guardian angel.
Cole’s music helped Porter in his formative youth and even helped shape him — in inspiration and impetus — into the artist he now is. The story of the album goes back to Porter’s childhood in the 1970s, raised by his mother and spurred on to listen to Cole’s music after she compared her son's voice to the famous baritone. The young Porter found solace in the music from the burdens of his own challenges dealing with an absent father.
“There's a song on the record, ‘I Wonder Who My Daddy Is,’ (originally performed by Cole’s brother, Freddy) that explains where I was at that time,” Porter said.
In 2004, after a stint on Broadway, Porter wrote and performed in a semi-autobiographical musical, also titled “Nat King Cole & Me,” a 13-year precursor to his latest album. It employed five actors, including Porter’s mother, and ran for two months at the Denver Center Theater in Denver, Colorado.
The musical was the impetus that proved to be a watershed moment for Porter, who has become one of the world’s leading jazz artists with two best jazz vocal album Grammy wins (for 2013’s “Liquid Spirit” and 2016’s “Take Me to the Alley.”)
In essence, the “Nat King Cole & Me” album isn’t just a tribute or even a story, it’s a show of gratitude.
The album doesn’t attempt to modernize the songs but to shine a light on the music’s complex emotionality. The songs are accompanied by a 70-piece orchestra adding a luxurious swell. Vince Mendoza’s arrangements are stunning, and, if anything, help show that Porter has the chops to hold his own in the middle of such a sweeping orchestral tide — at times, even elevating it. It’s sentimental and gorgeous; a lovely soundtrack to wistful, joyful melancholy.
Saturday's sold-out show, with the Nat King Cole-esque title “Coming Home: An Evening with Gregory Porter," marks the performer's local debut, not counting the times he sang in church, at school or at a friend’s wedding around 25 years ago.
The show’s setlist will run the gamut from all of his albums, omitting some of his latest’s more orchestrally complex material.
“I’m not coming with an orchestra, so we won't be doing all of those songs (off the new album),” Porter said, “and I haven’t played in Bakersfield (before), so people still want to hear music from my previous records. It’ll be a mix of everything.”
Porter is currently preparing for a tour throughout the UK culminating in three sold-out performances at the Royal Albert Hall as well as performing on some major television shows and performances throughout Europe where Porter is quite popular.
Next month, Porter will be playing Carnegie Hall.
“That’s a big deal for me,” Porter said, “and I like the fact that my warm-up gig for Carnegie Hall is Bakersfield. I’m excited about that.”