Gregory Porter's lockdown listening: 'I’m in search of uplift and answers'

With his brother in hospital with coronavirus, the jazz vocalist is taking solace in Herbie Hancock, Donny Hathaway, and disco dancing with his young son

I’m at home in California but my brother is in hospital in New York with coronavirus, and his situation is very serious. So this is a very difficult time, very trying. It’s springtime here, outside everything is beautiful and the flowers are popping out – yet many of my friends have died. There’s been about four people from a club I worked at in Harlem, St Nick’s Pub; I was on a cruise with Wallace Roney recently [the trumpeter died of coronavirus, aged 59]. It’s right in your face. So musically, this is not the time for anything mean, aggressive or negatively confrontational. I’m in search of beauty, uplift and answers.

The late Bill Withers, Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke and Nat King Cole, that’s the palette of sounds playing in my house. And Donny Hathaway, John Coltrane, Hank Mobley – music that is comforting, grounding and soulful, both instrumentally and lyrically.

I’m listening to the music of my bandmates, and people on social media – Cecile McLorin Salvant sang one of my songs the other day and it was just beautiful – and I’ve been putting on headphones, getting on a floatie in the pool and listening to Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage. I need the intimacy of that music. He has a knack, and it could be because of his faith, of taking you to a very spiritual, non-denominational place. I was floating above the water while I was floating in the water, while listening to his music.

My son is seven and he likes Earth, Wind & Fire. He’s less into Marshmello these days and more into Deadmau5, so we’re dancing around. It has been very sweet to be with him, and when I go into his world I’m less stressed, my neck is less stiff. Me and my wife are involved in his education in a big way now – we are the teachers, the cafeteria workers and his playmates, as he hasn’t seen another child in three weeks. His level of play, of freedom, is a beautiful thing to watch. He’s like: let me play to exhaustion, let me love so hard it hurts. These are things we all need to reaffirm. So I’m musically reaffirming and emotionally reaffirming, just by watching him. I’m thinking of the Bible passage: become as little children.

This is going to sound strange but I’ve been listening to my own music too, just reaffirming the things I believe. When I sing No Love Dying, or even songs that people think are dance songs, such as Liquid Spirit, I’m actually talking with my mother, and listening to those songs is a way for me to find reassurance. There’s a song on my new album called Real Truth, about how life and death is the ultimate truth, whether you will or won’t breathe – so this is coming to me in a new way. Another song, Thank You, I released early because I wanted to say thank you to all these healthcare workers that are working around the world, putting their lives in danger. We’re all distancing ourselves, running away from the fire, and they’re running into it. The people who do that are extraordinary and I want to say thank you with that song.

What I put out into the universe is positive; I’m proud of the way that I haven’t deviated from that, and that I’m still optimistic. And so, in a trying time like this, made even more trying by the sickness of my brother, I lean on the things that I’ve said and hope it reaffirms my belief in them. A magnificent comforter – a thing that I feel is a gift – is all of this music, man. I’m so thankful to have this music.

• Thank You by Gregory Porter is out now. A new album, All Rise, will be released on 28 August on Decca/Blue Note.


Interview by Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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