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Grammy nominee Gregory Porter blurs jazz lines with 'Liquid Spirit'

EntertainmentMusicJazz (Music Genre)Music IndustryGrammy AwardsNorah Jones

Gregory Porter opens his album "Liquid Spirit" with what sounds like an ode to a romantic relationship enduring hard times.

"The bones of love are everywhere," sings the stout, Brooklyn-based jazz vocalist over a cascading piano-bass-drums groove, "But I won't let it be / There will be no love dying here for me."

Turns out, though, that "No Love Dying" isn't addressed to Porter's wife.

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"Two blocks away from where I live there's some young men who have hopeless minds," Porter said recently. "They think they're supposed to be hard all the time. So in writing the song I was thinking of myself as an old man on a porch, yelling to the neighborhood: 'Ain't gonna be no trouble here!'

"Of course," he added, "it also operates perfectly as a love song."

Porter knows about dual identities. "Liquid Spirit," his third studio album, is up for the jazz vocal prize at Sunday's Grammy Awards, his second appearance in a category typically dominated by the likes of Nancy Wilson and Diana Krall.

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Yet one of the album's tracks, the slow-rolling "Hey Laura," is also nominated for traditional R&B performance against songs by "American Idol" alum Fantasia and singer-songwriter Gary Clark Jr.

Speaking at his hotel in Hollywood last week before an appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live," Porter, 42, said with a laugh, "I don't know what all these categories mean, man."

But his recognition in them speaks to the appealing in-between vibe of Porter's music, which combines the lithe rhythms and political engagement of Bill Withers and Curtis Mayfield with the intricate instrumental interplay essential to jazz.

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It's a quality that connects Porter to other genre-blurring artists such as Robert Glasper, the pianist who last year beat out R. Kelly and Tyrese for the R&B album Grammy, and the singer Jose James, whose recent "No Beginning No End" pulled as much from D'Angelo as from Andy Bey. (Like Porter, both Glasper and James are signed to the venerable Blue Note label.)

Brian Bacchus, who produced "Liquid Spirit" and has also collaborated with Norah Jones and Cassandra Wilson, described this expansive work as a response to "the jazz singer having been painted into a corner in terms of the repertoire," much of which is now considerably older than many of its interpreters.

"Bringing stuff into jazz that wouldn't have been there 20 or 30 years ago, that's hard to do unless you're writing your own material," Bacchus added.

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Indeed, though Porter's baritone resonates in handsome renditions of "The 'In' Crowd" and "I Fall in Love too Easily," it's his originals on "Liquid Spirit" that stand out, from the soulful "Brown Grass" to the simmering "Musical Genocide" to a handful of gorgeous ballads streaked with a kind of delicate mystery.

"The night has fallen," he sings in "Wolfcry," "You have soaked your see-through silken gown with tears."

Then there's the album's title track, a boisterous gospel-style number that Porter said grew out of his experience as a child singing in church. He was born in L.A. and spent his early childhood in Exposition Park until his mother moved him and his seven siblings to Bakersfield, where she worked as a minister in a series of tough neighborhoods.

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"She'd say, 'I wanna go where the dirt is,'" Porter recalled. "And we saw some things as children we probably shouldn't have seen: needles, prostitutes. She didn't shield us."

"Soul Train" and the radio exposed him to other sounds and attitudes, as did Bakersfield's tradition of country music, he said. After high school Porter went to college at San Diego State University and played football briefly, then returned to music as a kind of "solace" following the death of his mother.

The pastime turned professional when he moved to New York and landed a role in the musical "It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues," which ran on Broadway in the late '90s. That led to a long stretch of scraped-together recording sessions and $30-a-night gigs — sustained by the occasional trip to Russia, where early on he built a surprisingly robust audience — that continued until Porter released his 2010 debut, "Water," and began racking up Grammy nominations.

Porter will spend much of 2014 on the road behind "Liquid Spirit" (including a weeklong stint on Holland America's Jazz Cruise, set to launch next week). And though touring means leaving behind his wife and year-old son in Brooklyn, he views that challenge with the same flinty compassion he brings to "No Love Dying."

"I think what I'm doing is building a future for him," he said. "So it all balances out, I hope. Now if he starts to act like a knucklehead, I'll be like, 'This is time that I wasted for these few little chips.'" He laughed. "But I've got my brothers there to whup his little behind when he needs it."

mikael.wood@latimes.com

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