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Gregory Porter: Sound & Vision

By Published: August 6, 2012
AAJ: The songs on Be Good tell great stories, but they also reveal the feeling that they're not revealing everything, that there are stories behind their stories. The opener, "Painted on Canvas," strongly suggests that you work in visual media— do you?

GP: I love it. I would never show any of my paintings to anybody, but I'm attracted to that medium. I'm into photography as well. I'm very drawn to it, and in every city and country that I go to, I always find myself in a museum standing in front of some canvas. It is important to me.

But that song is really about letting people be who they are and allowing yourself to have the shape and color that you feel you should have. I think about this sometimes. When I walk into a room with people who don't know me, sometimes there's the unspoken undercurrent, "Who is this guy? What's he doing here? What's he all about?" Sometimes you can just see people throw a bucket of paint on you without being delicate. Other times, they use a fine brush. We often do it. Somebody walks through the door and we say, "Oh, young black guy, better watch my purse," or "Old white guy. He's got a bunch of money and he's racist," or, "Oh, there's a fat woman—she probably eats way too much." We do these things. But people are deeper than that, and we have to take a fine brush and take the time to figure out who and what they are. They have a right to some of these definitions that we make. I have the right to say who I am. It's not all up to you.

AAJ: Why is this song the title track, and what is the story behind the story told by "Be Good"?

GP: When you create music and you put it out there, you have no idea how it's going to come back to you. You never know how music is going to come back to you. That's the thing about communication within music: you send the song, the message, out there, it effects, and then it comes back. That's the extraordinary thing about music, to me—it's communication. I don't tell you how you should feel about the song—"You're supposed to remember a former girlfriend who locked you in the friendship cage or put you in a box"—I'm not supposed to tell you that. I perform the song, and you feel what you want to feel with the music.

This song is about a relationship I was in that didn't work out. Throughout the relationship, she liked me—marveled at me—but kind of kept me in a box. She kept me in a cage; she kept me in this confined space and didn't allow me to come out of it to love her, or to just kind of flex my muscles and be me. I always had to stay in control, contained in this cage. So, after the breakup, I remember riding home and saying to myself that I wanted a male song that was masculine but still soothing at the same time, like a grown man's lullaby. That's what it is. And she's a dancer, and she's from Austria, so that's why it's a kind of waltz.

AAJ: And this ended up being the title track?

GP: Yeah, I was performing it before we recorded it, and at the end of every set, people always asked me, "That lion song- - what's that all about, that lion song?" Pretty much every time I performed it, that's the song that they wanted to hear.

AAJ: Your spoken introduction to "Real Good Hands" sounds so much like Bill Withers, especially when you just walk right up to the microphone and simply open with "Well..." Those lyrics sound so real, too. How much of this one is a real true story?

Hubert Laws Remembers the Unforgettable Nat King ColeGP: Yeah, it's a true story. I'll tell you what happened: my girlfriend's father called and kind of rattled me a bit. He got to me before I could get to him, so his conversation to me was pretty much: "What are your intentions?" That was the conversation he gave me, so this song was my response to his worry. Her mother had some concerns as well. Basically, that was three days after this phone conversation, and I was pretty rattled. [Sings] "Mama, don't you worry 'bout your daughter, 'cause you're leaving her in real good hands." I just wanted to assure them that everything was going to be cool, that everything would follow its course, and that everything would be alright.

AAJ: That's another wonderfully but simply beautiful melody, too.

GP: The melody suggested the feel of the song. Sure, with jazz, I could have done Brazilia, I could have done anything, you know? Anything. But [sings] "Mama, don't you worry 'bout your daughter, 'cause you're leaving her in real good hands" felt like something soulful; it felt like something reminiscent of a '70s sound. That's what it suggested. Sometimes the song will write itself, and that's what was happening with that tune. But, yeah, true story. I married the girl, and we're in our first few months of marriage, so there you go.

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