Gregory Porter opens his latest album, "Liquid Spirit," with what sounds like an ode to a romantic relationship enduring hard times.
"The bones of love are everywhere," sings the 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.
"Two blocks away from where I live there's some young men who have hopeless minds," Porter says. "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 adds, "it also operates perfectly as a love song."
Porter knows about dual identities. "Liquid Spirit," his third studio album, won the jazz-vocal Grammy on Jan. 26. It was his second nomination in a category typically dominated by the likes of Nancy Wilson and Diana Krall.
Yet one of the album's tracks, the slow-rolling "Hey Laura," was also nominated for traditional R&B performance, a category with songs by "American Idol" alum Fantasia and singer-songwriter Gary Clark Jr.
In a phone interview from Hollywood, Porter, 42, says with a laugh, "I don't know what all these categories mean, man."
But his nominations speak to the appealing in-between vibe of his music, which combines the lithe rhythms and political engagement of a Bill Withers and a Curtis Mayfield with the intricate instrumental interplay that defines jazz.
That's also a quality that connects Porter to other genre-blurring artists such as the pianist Robert Glasper and the singer José James.
Brian Bacchus, who produced "Liquid Spirit" and also has collaborated with Norah Jones and Cassandra Wilson, describes this expansive work as a response to jazz singers "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 adds.
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, ranging 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 grew out of his experience as a child singing in church, Porter says. Born in L.A., he 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.
"She'd say, 'I wanna go where the dirt is,' " Porter recalls. "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 says. After high school, Porter went to San Diego State and played football briefly, then returned to music as a kind of "solace" following the death of his mother.
The pastime turned into a profession 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 he built a surprisingly robust audience. These jobs continued until Porter released his 2010 debut, "Water," and began building buzz and racking up Grammy nominations.
Porter will spend much of 2014 on the road behind performing songs off "Liquid Spirit." 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," Porter says. "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 laughs. "But I've got my brothers there (to act as surrogate dads while I'm gone)."