How we met: Gregory Porter & Jools Holland
'People shake at the knees if I invite them for a day out with me'
Jools Holland, 55
A founding member of British pop band Squeeze, the pianist and musician is now best known for hosting the long-running television show 'Later... with Jools Holland'. He regularly tours the world with his 20-piece Rhythm & Blues Orchestra
Making music with someone is a marvellous way to meet. A couple of years ago someone had sent a CD of Gregory's music to one of the producers of the TV show [Later…] and he suggested Gregory should be invited on. So a few months later Gregory arrived at this tiny BBC studio to rehearse with me before the show. He was quiet and charming – almost shy. But once I started to play on the piano, he realised that I'd studied and loved his song "Illusion", and I felt we started to communicate together, without having to use words as a blunt instrument. During the show itself, the nature of his voice and his presence was so powerful that afterwards I said to him, "You were made to play with our big band."
So he came to one of our big-band shows and did a few songs, and the crowd loved him. He can do pianissimo – quiet and delicate – and he can do forte, where he comes out and explodes. Everyone in the band took a shine to him, too, as he's technically great and he's such a warm person to be around. He became part of the big-band family, joining us in between going off to [his own] gigs for the day, and coming back to join us again.
People shake at the knees if I invite them for a day out with me. I like to start the day at 8am before an evening performance, scampering up any local medieval remains, messing with 18th-century doorways, interviewing the local mayor – all before lunch. And as Gregory had never seen England before, I'd often come bounding over to him to ask if he wanted to go for a little walk. But he'd seen what I got up to and he'd been warned by the others, so he'd say, "Well, it isn't going to be a little walk is it? I'm trying to rest before the show." I did manage to drag him to a few things, though.
As you get older it's not so easy to make new friends, which is why it's so great to have met Gregory. Even though he spends a lot of time in New York, when we do see each other it's like no time has passed: he's just had a baby and when we bumped into one another a few weeks ago at a festival, the whole of the band crowded around him, asking to see a picture.
He's stayed at my house in Kent, where we spent an evening listening to old blues records, and after a few hours we thought, we've got to write something. He's from the jazz scene, but we wrote about someone going back home to the rural countryside of the Deep South [the collaboration is on Holland's album Golden Age of Song], where his grandmother is from. It was a hot day and I really felt alive working on this powerful, rhythmic song with him.
Gregory Porter, 42
After injuring his shoulder playing American football, Porter turned to performing in stage musicals, before being spotted singing at a Brooklyn jazz club. The Grammy-nominated singer has released two albums and has toured with Jools Holland's Orchestra for the past two years. He lives in New York
I don't know how I knew of him in New York, but people talked about Jools over there like he was a UK legend. Once I knew I was going to be on his show I checked out clips of him on YouTube: he was a unique character, a real throwback to another era. And as he's also a musician, he understood the music, he lives through it, and he induced the appetite of the audience by the way he introduced each artist.
I came into his dressing-room a few hours before I went on the show. He was a warm person, and there was an easy rapport, but I also think he seemed a little nervous about playing with me, so we went through the performance again and again. After the show, he told me that he'd heard something in my voice that would work with his orchestra.
So I joined them, touring around the interior of Britain, which was so beautiful: lovely castles and old buildings. And night after night Jools was his warm self. Before each show he'd introduce me to various rock'n'roll legends before we'd go on. He was like, "Oh Gregory, I was just talking to Eric Clapton about you," and he'd introduce me.
Watching Jools playing on tour is infectious: while he's as British as British comes, Mr Jools will choose some obscure 1930s backwater blues recording and will play and sing it in the style of a piano player and singer from the Mississippi delta, and that itself is beautifully disarming and enjoyable.
Jools has a home in Kent which I've visited; it looks like some redone 12th-century castle, overlooking this extraordinary land filled with wildlife and fruit trees. And he seems to care about it all, too: we went for a walk around it all with his Labrador, and he was checking all the pear trees and stomping at the roots to stimulate them. People have no idea about what he gets up to.
I'm a lover of the blues and Jools is steeped in it. We went into a tiny room at the back of his house with an upright piano and we talked about the energy of the blues and gospel, and all of a sudden we just started riffing and he'd say, "What are you feeling when I play something like this?" I'm sweating and singing in a gospel fashion and after about 15 minutes, a song starts to form.
I've learnt a lot from watching him: he's reaffirmed my belief in bringing the audience in with your music; that they want to be involved as well. So the title track of my new album is influenced by him. I'm talking to the audience, I'm saying on my track, "Clap your hands now, come into the song with me."
Porter's third album, 'Liquid Spirit', is out tomorrow on Blue Note (gregoryporter.com)
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