‘New sounds’ inspire Grammy winner Charlie Porter to creative heights; looks forward to Maui performance
April 23, 2023, 8:29 AM HST
* Updated April 26, 12:33 AM
Maui Now Interview: Charlie Porter
It’s difficult to describe the dimension and depth of classical and jazz trumpeter-composer Charlie Porter’s talent. His body of work is flourishing, and he’ll be performing this Wednesday at ProArts Theatre with a quintet including bassist Marcus Johnson, pianist Jeff Hellmer, drummer Duke Gadd, and saxophonist John Zangrando.
Porter’s collaboration with opera star Joyce DiDonato’s album “Songplay” earned him a Grammy Award in 2019. His “Immigration Nation” release in 2019 was voted one of the best albums of the year by Downbeat Magazine. He is also a founding member of the Grammy-nominated electro-acoustic Absolute Ensemble, directed by Kristjan Jarvi.
A student of famed trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis at The Julliard School, Porter also holds a degree from the Manhattan School of Music in jazz and classical performance. He was a Fulbright Scholar at the Paris Conservatory and commissioned as a composer by Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Foundation.
Early in his career, he was the first trumpeter to win first place in both the classic and jazz divisions of the National Trumpet Competition. Currently, Porter, based in Portland, Oregon, is an adjunct professor of trumpet at New York University.
Maui Now’s Gary Kubota interviewed Porter.
KUBOTA: What was the first musical instrument you learned? How did you come about learning music?
PORTER: My first instrument was the trumpet. It was a simple choice in 6th grade between football and band. I was scrawny and not interested much in sports, so my mom and grandma decided I should do music. I wanted to play the drums and sax, of course, but my grandmother — being the real music afficianado in the family and fan of the trumpet — chose the trumpet. My mom agreed, as the rental price for a trumpet was way cheaper than a sax and seemingly still quieter than the drums. LOL
KUBOTA: What do you think of Miles Davis’ album Sketches of Spain and Chick Correa’s Return To Forever? Where do you see yourself going musically?
PORTER: I have to ask why those albums? They are great albums, but what we call Jazz is such a large umbrella term for a lot of directions going many places. Rather than speaking to one of Mile’s or Chick’s albums, I’d rather speak to the spirit of experimentation and forward-thinking that they both exhibited throughout their careers. Both of them were not afraid to push themselves into new sonic arenas. Chick was one of the first to seriously use synth sounds, along with others like Zawinul. This music is a living, breathing compendium of history and inclusivity. It ceases to garner either of those things if it doesn’t keep venturing into new territory. I consider myself a sonic explorer, trying new things, while still being rooted in the rich history of the music…finding new sounds and ideas that make me excited to play.
KUBOTA: Describe the neighborhood or neighborhoods you grew up in. Are they in your music?
PORTER: I grew up rather poor in South Florida. I can’t say that the neighborhoods from that part of my life are part of my music. I can say that my musical upbringing included everything from classical, jazz, latin and R&B, so that’s all part of my musical imagination. I would consider my younger years in New York City being a formidable part of that upbringing, having had the chance to play in so many arenas of music. Lots of melodies come to mind when I think about New York. However, my time spent abroad in West Africa, India, and Southeast Asia also make up part of the fabric of my musical imagination and influence. Tons of melodies there as well.
KUBOTA: Who were the major influences in your life and why?
PORTER: Wynton Marsalis was my first major influence. I met him backstage, after seeing my first real concert at 13 years old. What a first concert it was. I was blown away. Wynton helped me with some trumpet tips and then kept in touch with me through the years — all the way up until I eventually studied with him at The Juilliard School in New York. His work ethic and diverse approach to music – not restricted by genre, were and are still very motivating to me. There are few trumpeters or musicians who can rival his ability. As far as other trumpeters, Louis Armstrong, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, and Clark Terry have been some of the most influential to me. The first solos I ever transcribed were of Louis Armstrong, and I believe that they laid a great foundation for everything else. As a composer, I’m also largely influenced by composers such as Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, Igor Stravinsky, Serge Prokofiev, and many others.
KUBOTA: Where do you look for inspiration on your musical compositions?
PORTER: I’m always looking for a new sound that stirs me and gets me excited to write. Sometimes those sounds come from something old that I hadn’t yet checked out. Sometimes they are brand new, stemming from another musical genre, like pop or R&B. Sometimes ideas are forged from thinking outside of music, drawing inspiration from the visual arts, dance, poetry, etc.
I once went to the Museum Of Modern Art in New York, and saw the most bizzare “painting.” It was a series of household objects glued to a canvas and covered in thick white paint and hung up so the objects were pointing straight out towards you. On the one hand I thought to myself, “This is art?” But on the other hand, I thought, “What would this sound like if it were translated to music, how would I represent the various monochromatic shades of white to black caused by the shadows, as well as the three dimensionality of it all. It was a new way for me to think about building a song, and it was a brilliant lesson to me that we can get so much from looking outside of music for source material.
I suppose I’ve done the same thing with one of my new albums Cypher that I’m currently getting mixed. I’m really excited about it! The idea was to embed nine clues into one track each, using various cyphers. These clues are actually nine sentences that form a map which take the listener/treasure hunter to a specific location where I have hidden an object worth $10,000. This is NOT a joke. I wanted to create a treasure hunt in an album, and I believe it’s the first of its kind. For me, the real treasure was using cyphers as a mode to create new melodic material! This got my brain thinking in a whole new way.
Great music is a mix of the known and the unknown…the predictable and the unpredictable…tension and release! Figuring out how to use these outside elements helps me to find new ways to create the unpredictable in music. The process of marrying them with tradition and finding that balance between dissonance and consonance, chaos and uniformity— well, that’s what excites me.
KUBOTA: What exercises do you do regularly to keep your game up?
PORTER: I practice trumpet everyday, and I try to write everyday as well. I seek balance in both of these arenas which means I want to have discipline and keep some things rigorously predictable, like the exercises, and also change things up and do unexpected things in my practice as well, such as a new exercise I’m making up, a transcription of a new tune or lick, etc.
KUBOTA: Is there anything you do or like to eat when on Maui?
PORTER: I’m gonna let my wife, Tessa, do most of the planning — she grew up on Maui. I’m looking forward to doing some hiking, going to the beach, and definitely eating some great poke and spam musubi. I’m also open to suggestions! My wife and my two-year-old son, Ellis, will all be on the island together, so I’m really just looking forward to spending quality family time together no matter what we are doing.
KUBOTA: What lies ahead?
PORTER: This year I’ll be releasing many new albums, including a live quintet album recorded at the Blue Llama jazz club in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Portland Sketches; the Cypher project; and recording a couple new ones as well — a four classical concerto project, brass chamber music CD, and a book/album of 45 original trumpet solo etudes. I’ll also be performing at the Elbjazz Fest in Hamburg, Germany in June.