ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. In his first semester playing football at San Diego State University, Gregory Porter severely injured his shoulder. The bad news, doctors told him his football days were over. The good news, the school let him keep his football scholarship. Now, suddenly without football, but with a lot of time on his hands, Porter searched for a new calling and he found his voice.
GREGORY PORTER: (Singing) Un-reroute the rivers. Let the dammed water free. There's some people down the way that's thirsty, so let the liquid spirit free.
CORNISH: Gregory Porter has since become a world renowned jazz singer and he has a new album out. It's called "Liquid Spirit."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "LIQUID SPIRIT")
PORTER: (Singing) Get ready for the wave. It might strike like a final plug. The people haven't drank in so long, the water won't even make mud. After it comes, it might come with a steady flow. Grab the roots of the tree down by the river, dip your cups when your spirit's low. Clap your hands now.
CORNISH: I recently spoke with Gregory Porter about his turn from football to jazz, but our talk took a serious turn as Porter took me back to one of his last conversations with his mother.
PORTER: She had cancer, breast cancer, and she - on her deathbed, she had a couple of days left and we were talking about everything, you know, children and what I'll do with the rest of my life. And I wanted to tell her, it's like, mom, I'm studying city planning and I'll be a good municipal worker or, you know, whatever I'll be, so you don't have to worry about me, you know, when you leave.
And she just said to me, she's like, you know, Gregory, singing is one of the best things you do, so don't forget about that as well. And in a way, she kind of just like gave me this surprising nudge. She said, sing, baby, and laid her head down, you know. And so that's what I'm doing now.
CORNISH: What kind of music had you been listening to before? What brought you to jazz?
PORTER: I heard myself in jazz. My grandmother, and my mother, and my grandfather, their style of praying was all day long. They would pray by singing and humming, (humming) and some of the notes that they were hitting, I always equated to jazz saxophone players. And, you know, come to find out after, you know, studying it and digging into it for a while, it was the same thing, you know.
My grandmother and Coltrane did have a connection and my mother also loved Nat King Cole. That was some of the first music that I heard, yeah.
CORNISH: On a song like - is it "Wolfcry"?
PORTER: "Wolfcry," yeah.
CORNISH: That has a kind of a croon to it and a gentleness to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "WOLFCRY")
PORTER: (Singing) The night has fallen. You have soaked your see-through silken gown with tears. You love was all in and he mistook your come stay call for come quick, dear.
CORNISH: Your writing is so evocative and it made sense to me when I learned that you also have a musical theater background. Like, you've written a musical.
PORTER: Yeah, yeah. This musical comes back to Nat King Cole and...
CORNISH: And we should say this musical was called "Nat King Cole and Me."
PORTER: Right, "Nat King Cole and Me." But the story is the story of my childhood and how I came to Nat King Cole's music so strongly in the absence of my father. It was like seeing his image in this, you know, this elegant, you know, handsome, strong man sitting by a fire looking like somebody's daddy. And I was like, wow, okay. Then, I put it on and then, you know, (singing) smile though your heart is aching. Smile even though - you know.
The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return, you know. You'll be a man someday, you know, just these powerful words I started to listen to and they affected me.
CORNISH: Can I ask about your father? What happened to him?
PORTER: He was this charismatic preacher, singer, painter. These are all things I found out at his funeral. You know, after he divorced my mother, he came around, but not often.
CORNISH: So there's no musical connection there?
PORTER: Well, there is now. I've created - in the musical I created an apology from him. His character actually says to me that he's sorry. And once I performed it on stage at the Denver Center, I actually released that bitterness that I had towards him. And in the writing in this record, I actually have come to the place that I have to give my mother all the credit and love that she is due, but I also have to give my father some thanks for my creativity.
I'm almost certain, genetically, it comes from him. And my singing voice comes from him.
CORNISH: It does?
PORTER: Yeah. And so I have to say, wow, I have something to be thankful for and he did give me some gifts that are paving a way for me so my burden is lighter, you know. I'm now quoting some of the lyrics from one of the songs called "Free."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "FREE")
PORTER: (Singing) So as a young and a free, Daddy made a way for me. He paved the road so my burden is lighter. And Momma did just the same, dropping love just like rain. She said, guard your heart from it (unintelligible). Free, free, free.
I think part of my job as a songwriter is to go back in my memory and pull up those pains for other people because somebody else is going to come along who didn't have a good issue with their father. And so there's a song that I'm currently working on called - he was painter, a house painter and the song's called "A Man On The Ladder." And I stand at the bottom of the ladder waiting to catch some of the overspray from the paint so it would land on my face, so people would know that I was the son of this painter.
CORNISH: You know, if you mention a new song you're writing, I can't help but wonder what it sounds like. Would you sing any of it?
PORTER: Well, yeah. (Singing) There's a man on a ladder way up in the sky. No, actually, I can't.
CORNISH: You had me right there. I'm just gonna say that.
PORTER: Well, yeah. So - (Singing) He had a big head and real wide shoulders and real small feet. So small, I couldn't see his footprints. You know, I can't see his footsteps and I don't know which way to go because I didn't have a man to guide me and lead me and direct me in the way that, you know, fathers do. There you go.
CORNISH: Well, thank you so much for telling us these stories. It was really amazing. I appreciate it.
PORTER: Thanks so much.
CORNISH: Gregory Porter, his new album is called "Liquid Spirit." To hear the whole album, go to NPR.org.