As a little boy in a big family with no father in sight, Gregory Porter found succor in the warm, embracing balladry of Nat “King’’ Cole. Unaware that Cole had died some seven years before his birth, Porter latched on to the suave crooner as a lifeline in an uncertain world, and his effortlessly swinging delivery continues to resonate in Porter’s soul-drenched sound.
“I used to listen to the records and look at the album covers and imagine him as my father, who wasn’t around,’’ says Porter, 40, from his home in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. “I just heard those words of wisdom. Smile though your heart is aching. Pick yourself up. It’s really fatherly advice.’’
These days, it’s Porter who’s offering up trenchant council, though rather than singing standards, he’s honed a repertoire of finely wrought original songs that often explore social issues. Celebrating the release of his second album on Motema, “Be Good,’’ he performs at the Regattabar on Thursday with his working quartet.
Possessing a burnished baritone, Porter can bring to mind soul star Donny Hathaway or jazz singer Arthur Prysock. He claims both as influences, but Brian Bacchus, who produced “Be Good,’’ sees Porter as growing out of a lineage of singular African-American singer-songwriters like Terry Callier and Richie Havens.
“He’s a jazz singer who’s coming out of the church, like Lizz Wright,’’ says Bacchus, who’s produced albums by numerous singer-songwriters, including Callier, Havens, Norah Jones, and Wright. “We’re missing that these days, and Gregory is a breath of fresh air. There wasn’t really a conscious effort to focus on his originals. It’s just his songs are some of the best.’’
Born in Sacramento and raised after the age of 9 in the hardscrabble city of Bakersfield, Calif., Porter grew up with seven siblings who all sang and worked in the skid row mission run by their mother. She couldn’t serve as pastor in a Church of God in Christ congregation, so she found her calling caring for the downtrodden.
“We were always giving away food and clothing,’’ Porter says. “We’d all be singing in church with an out-of-tune piano, or without any piano, and sometimes the audience would be winos, and, quite frankly, prostitutes. We hated it at the time, but I think about it now and she was teaching us valuable lessons and gifts.’’
He attended San Diego State University on a football scholarship, a scholarship he managed to hold on to when a shoulder injury ended his playing career. Drawn to musical theater, Porter started sitting in at local jazz clubs. He quickly found encouragement from local stars like trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos, tenor saxophonist Daniel Jackson, and altoist Kamau Kenyatta, a University of California-San Diego music professor who took the young singer under his wing. Supplying Porter with a steady flow of CDs, he schooled him in the tradition.
An old friend of Hubert Laws, Kenyatta engineered Porter’s first big break when he invited him to a recording session for what turned into the 1998 album, “Hubert Laws Remembers the Unforgettable Nat ‘King’ Cole.’’ Kenyatta encouraged the flutist to let Porter sing over a track, and his impromptu rendition of “Smile’’ impressed the flutist enough that he included it on the CD.
The recording served as a calling card that introduced Porter to Laws’s sister, vocalist Eloise Laws, who invited him to audition for a musical she was helping develop, “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues.’’ He got the gig, and the production ended up with a respectable Broadway run (284 performances), complete with four Tony Award nominations.
With numerous tent revivals featuring preachers from the Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, Porter’s Bakersfield youth ended up offering ideal training for a revue tracing the history of the blues.
“These were country ministers, and the music was country gospel blues,’’ Porter says. “So when I got into this musical, I knew this sound.’’
He knew the sound so well that he contributed a song, which he built out of a chant his grandfather delivered along with a licking when any of the kids misbehaved.
“He’d say, ‘Children, your line is dragging/ pick up the slack and hew your line,’ ’’ Porter recalls. “That song made it into the Broadway musical and the recording. I was singing my grandfather’s words on the Broadway stage!’’
Encouraged by the success of his first piece, Porter returned to San Diego when “Ain’t Nothin’ ’’ closed and developed his own show, “Nat King Cole and Me,’’ a musical that alternated standards with Porter’s originals. All the while, he was angling to release an album of his own. Signed to Motema, he seemed to come out of nowhere with 2010’s “Water,’’ a session that earned him a Grammy Award nomination for best jazz vocal album.
“I do feel like I’m coming from a particular tradition of jazz singing that’s steeped in soul as well,’’ Porter says. “Hopefully I’ll be given the room to expand and even to make mistakes. If we’re onstage and play the entire concert safe, that’s not what jazz is about. It’s about exploring, taking chances, and you might fail.’’Andrew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.