It was the suggestion of Ben Brophy and Mialy Rama that a portrait of Jazz-singer/songwriter Gregory Porter might be fun to do, and could take my work into a rich new direction. We had seen Gregory Porter perform live at Southport Weekender 49 at Minehead in 2013, in one of the smaller, more intimate venues (The Connoisseur’s Room).
The performance totally blew me away, as it did most of the audience.And I came out with the feeling that this was the best live musical performance I had ever witnessed. It was the combination of passion and precision, and also the fusion of the improvisational values of Jazz together with with the colourful, descriptive songwriting ability of Gregory Porter. The combination touched the soul with boldness and sensitivity in varying degrees. I think one reason that the performance was emotionally as well as musically powerful, was because, Like many soul singers Mr Porter is able to reach out and touch us through evoking shared experience in the story-telling of his songwriting. In his vocal delivery he has the power and diverse range of Soul Singers like Teddy Pendergrass and Marvin Gaye, but his songwriting ability and originality is vastly superior, and more akin to Otis Redding of The Beatles.
The backing band was supportive in a way similar to how the Stax Musicians supported a whole range of acts from Otis and Aretha Franklyn to Albert King and Rufus Thomas…supportive precision where the individual ego of the musician is subordinated to supporting the main performer. But after each of the songs had been performed, the track would continue in its groove and begin to ‘flower’ as a piece of semi-improvised jazz in its own right, referencing Swing and Bebop soloing as well as developing the funk grooves, and each musician shone. The combination of it all seemed so perfect…that is what struck me at the time.
Anyhow, I only had a few ‘Mugshots’ of Mr Porter to work with, cribbed from the Internet to work from, plus the portrait on his first CD album which I had bought at Southport.
But what is the point of simply blowing up and ‘copying’ a photograph? Can the photograph in its own right really be improved upon? And isn’t there something a bit dishonest about copying a photo, then passing it off as an original artwork without crediting the photographer, even though the portrait has gone through a transition through the use of different scale medium and materials?
In terms of ‘the groove’, and dance floor action, the the 12’ version of ‘1960 What’ was the most exciting in terms of Jazz-dance, and club music, and also more recently, the House remix of ‘Liquid Spirit’
But it was in listening to that first cd, and the lyrics of the songs whilst myself painting, that provided the ideas for my portrait. The first song on the LP presents the actions and processes of a painter, and likens ones life-choices to the choices made by the painter, ‘Can I get some green with my Blues?’ he asks.
In his second song ‘Be Good’ he describes himself as an imprisoned Lion being obserrved and controlled by somebody. He never tells us who, it could be anyone, and anyone could be that Lion. But we get the feeling that it is somebody known and loved that is imprisoning the Lion rather than a stranger. At the time (2013) this really struck a chord with me, because I was myself coming out of a relationship which I perceived as dysfunctional because my partner seemed to me to be too controlling to the point where it became abusive…And in Mr Porters lyric, his unnamed jailer dances around his cage, afraid to open the door as Lions might bite, and are therefore only to be watched and admired behind bars.
So, the resulting portrait, referencing Porter’s lyrics has an element of both biography and autobiography.
But the mood I wanted to present was one of celebration and optimism rather than gloom and judgement, and I found a useful source for colour, mood and subject in Lonnie Liston Smith’s 1970’s ‘Visions of A New World’ LP cover, where Lonnie’s painted portrait is set against a vividly colourful tropical sunrise, or sunset.
The outcome of the Lion’s imprisonment is also cause for celebration and optimism in my painting, because the Lion cage door is opened and the beast leaps into the outstretched palm of Mr Porter, in front of his smiling face.
In accommodating all these ideas, I found I did not have enough space in my rectangular shaped canvas, so I added an additional strip of paper on the left hand side to enlarge the canvas, and also to transform it from a rectangle to a square.
Pastel and charcoal on dark blue Canson paper. 75 cm x 75 cm. (2013-2017).