Interview by Tree Palmedo, April 2021—
Catching up with Charlie Porter is bittersweet. The accomplished trumpeter, who in the past five years has become one of Portland’s most in-demand musicians and prolific composers, is gearing up to return to New York for a while, starting this summer.
“I was out there for 16 years, and I’ve been missing that scene,” he says. “And the Portland scene has slowed down over the past seven years.”
Compared to his initial stint in New York, where he was a busy freelancer and a founding member of Kristian Jarvi’s acclaimed Absolute Ensemble, Porter’s time in the Northwest has so far been relatively brief. A relationship initially brought him to Washington’s Orcas Island, where he lived for over two years, enjoying the temperate climate and commuting all the way to Portland for gigs with Chuck Israels and Alan Jones.
“Believe it or not, I was driving four and a half hours plus the ferry rides both ways, probably two times a month, three times a month just doing gigs,” he says.
Porter finally relocated full-time to Portland five years ago, and while he’s been gigging at a slower pace than he had been on the East Coast, the Portland lifestyle has led to unprecedented creativity as a composer and artist in his own right. Since releasing his self-titled debut album in 2018, Porter has put out two more records, Immigration Nation (2019) and Hindsight, which was released in early 2021 on OA2 Records. He's got three more projects already in the works.
“I probably would have started making records sooner,” Porter says. “But in New York, it was always just a struggle to pay rent, and it was not as easy to just record stuff yourself back in the mid 90s, early 2000s. A lot of people are amateur recording engineers now; you can find people everywhere to record you and do it with good quality.”
Hindsight is a 2020 project in more ways than just its winking title. For one, it was recorded in Portland, New York City, and Mali during a global pandemic. And thematically, it aims to tie together questions of social justice, environmental catastrophe, and the uncertainty of humanity’s future that have loomed large over the past year. Mirroring this ambitious thematic scope, the album’s music incorporates gospel, traditional Malian instruments, and hip-hop elements, with singers and rappers enriching the album’s narrative with their own perspectives.
“I’m really happy with how the song ‘Things Fall Apart’ came out,” Porter says. “I can't say what it feels like to be a person of color. But what I can do is empathize with my friends that are people of color, and I can also leave space for them in what I'm doing...One of my best friends, [violinist] Majid Khaliq: I've known him since since college, and he knows what it's like to grow up as a black man in the Bronx. So I said, ‘Hey, why don't you tell your story?’ And he did. And then Rasheed Jamal is another friend of mine from out here. He told his story in the rap section of the song. It came together really organically.”
It’s clear from the collaborations across all three of his albums that Porter likes to share the spotlight. And on his next endeavor, a work-in-progress called Portland Sketches, he’s finding new ways to highlight others. The project aims to pair improvisations based on short themes with visual art from a diverse cohort of Portland artists.
“I want to show off Portland, and the artists of Portland,” Porter says. “But I want it to be coming from the point of view of a lot of different people that make up Portland. Portland sometimes gets a reputation—I have some friends that think that there are no black people. And that's simply not true. It’s just that with the redlining and everything, still to this day the effect has been that they were pushed out to outlying neighborhoods, and because of that, integration still has not taken fully into effect.”
The music, highly improvised, is taken from a live set at the 1905 with Darian Patrick, Mike Gamble, and Andrew Jones. Porter aims to make the visual component a similarly found-in-the-moment experience.
“The idea would be that the sketches would be done by the artist, in real time as they're listening to the music,” he says. “So then we get a visual component that matches the same emphasis as the musical component, which is that we don't know what's about to happen and we’re just going with the flow of the moment.”
Porter’s other projects in the works include an album called Cipher, which ambitiously encrypts secret messages into its musical language that can actually lead the listener to a real $10,000 cash prize. The album was inspired by the story of Forrest Fenn, an eccentric millionaire who riddled his memoir with clues to the location of a $2 million treasure chest. With a penchant for Indiana Jones films and a sponsor lined up to back the prize, Porter appreciates both the opportunity to approach composition in a new way and the thrill of creating a true treasure hunt for his listeners.
“My hope is that people that don't know how to read music might learn to read music just for this,” Porter says, laughing. “It doesn't take a ton of music theory to be able to crack the code. But it does take a very, very basic amount of music theory, like the letters of the musical alphabet. The idea is that it gets people to listen to the music a little bit deeper than they normally do. And also having a physical location for the actual prize gets people out and about in nature, too.”
As if this wild idea weren’t enough, Porter is also planning a classical release, which will place new compositions alongside rearranged works from the classical trumpet canon. While it’s important to Porter to exist across genre lines, he’d almost prefer that those lines didn’t exist at all.
“Can we get past the surface area stuff of what sells this music in record stores?” Porter asks. “Growing up, some of my favorite composers, if I were to list them, I’d list Mingus and Shostakovich and Stravinsky all together. And Prokofiev. But you listen to Prokofiev and you're going to hear sections that groove too, and you listen to Mingus and you're going to hear stuff that's just sublime and refined, but then also stuff that's completely just gritty and dark. And I love it, man. I love that the whole human experience is in what he does.”
With Hindsight still fresh off the presses and the three other projects in various stages of completion, it feels like 2020 was Porter’s most productive year yet. He’d agree.
“I’ve been teaching every day, more than ever, which is a reality that a lot of musician friends have been doing through the pandemic,” Porter says. “You learn a lot, but you also get inspired. Every time I hear someone in a lesson, I’m like, ‘Man, now I want to practice!’ And every time I talk about composition with people I get inspired and I want to compose. There's a huge period happening of just learning and growth because people have extra time on their hands. For me, in lieu of more gigs, I've been envisioning more projects.”
This heightened productivity is part of what is pushing Porter back to New York. He plans to return to Portland in a couple of years; his partner, with whom he recently had a son, has strong ties to the area, and he plans to keep his local connections. But for now, Porter wants to bring his slate of projects to a national stage during what he thinks might actually be a very hopeful time for music. Listeners can catch Porter at the Botanist on April 30, where he will be headlining the JSO’s Jazz Masters series for International Jazz Day.
“Some people think of everything being kind of dark, like the economy is going to collapse and everything,” Porter says. “But I’m envisioning that we’re going to have an explosion of art and music. There’s going to be a renaissance that’s going to happen. I think good things are coming, and I want to be part of that.”
The Charlie Porter Quartet plays April 30, International Jazz Day, at the Botanist. Find tickets for the early show here and the late show here.