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Published: 2017/08/04
by Mike Greenhaus

George Porter Jr.: A Traiblazer’s Travels

Photo by Dino Perrucci

George Porter Jr. is torchbearer of The Meters sound. The bassist is the only member of the funk pioneers who regularly plays with all of the group’s founding members—keyboardist Art Neville, guitarist Leo Nocentelli and drummer Zigaboo Modeliste—and, with Neville, remains at the helm of the long-running spinoff band the funky Meters. He also participated in all of the Original Meters recent reunion shows aboard Jam Cruise and around Jazz Fest, as well as the new Arroyo Seco festival in June. Earlier this summer, Porter, who has served as The Meters’ main liaison to the jamband world for decades, also participated in Bonnaroo’s signature SuperJam, where he served as part of a house band that included event curators Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Jon Batiste and Sam Cohen. During The Soul Shakedown Jam session, he had the opportunity to play a cross-generational set of hits—songs his daughter loves as well as songs his granddaughter loves, he notes—and perform with current festival king and Meters fan Chance The Rapper. During a recent conversation as part of an event at The Chord Club in New York City, Porter discussed his recent collaborations, hopes for The Meters’ catalog and his musical goals as he moves toward 70.

When we were talking before, you said that you are in the midst of two very different recording projects. I was wondering if you could start by giving us a little background on those two projects and your goals for each of them.

The two projects that I’m really concentrating on right now, one is the Porter Trio, which is two of the members of the Runnin’ Pardners Band, Mike Lemmler on the keyboards and Terrence Houston on drums, and myself. The other project is just a Porter record. Just me, and I’m going to be working with various other artists—like doing me and somebody, or me and a bunch of somebodies. I got that idea when I did the project with Gov’t Mule. It was Mule and somebodies, a bunch of bass players.

The Deep End records…

I’m not going to do a bunch of bass players, but I’m going to try and shoot for some songwriters. I just started working with a young lady named Mia Borders. She’s a wonderful lyricist and an artist on her own. I’ve just been brainstorming about doing a record with her. I think it’s going to be cool. I might anger a few other female songwriters around the city who have been working with me over the past few years, but I think Mia’s is going to be the one.

You’ve played such a wide range of material over your career—are there certain songs that you feel there’s a grand opportunity to document and revisit with some friends and different collaborators?

At this point, I’m actually thinking of writing some new music, something fresh. It may not be fresh, but it’ll be new. I may be revisiting some of my original thoughts and flipping them over, rolling them over on their belly. [Laughs.] But I think the Porter record, my solo record, I want to be more R&B. Try to lean on my little bit of—I don’t want to say gospel influence because I’m a Catholic boy. We didn’t do gospel music in a Catholic church, but it was some warm-feeling music. I’m thinking that it would probably be some gospel-feeling things. When I say gospel, I mean more about the harmonies and the vocals that are not just in R&B or pop music. It’s always in church.

Shifting to the Trio record you’re working on, the Runnin’ Pardners have been one of your primary projects for a long time now. Talk a little bit about the evolution of the stripped-down trio you play with and some of the styles we can expect from this record.

I’m thinking that that record is going to lean very close to funk fusion. We take simple funk songs and swing them, just because we can. I look over at Terrence and I just say, “Swing it.” He starts swinging and we go for it. I still have that feeling with Runnin’ Pardners too—that band has so much history, being able to turn left on a dime and everyone turns left together. With the trio, it’s even more intense. We can take off and all of us shoot in different directions and stay out there for a while and then all of the sudden, we’re back there. It’s all the drummers fault, because he always knows where one is.

You and Terrence have been playing together in so many different configurations these days. You guys must know each other very well musically.

Terrance brought a new feeling to my music when he got in the band. I played with Russell Batiste for almost 22 years, and I love Russell, but when we stopped loving each other [laughs] I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was introduced to Terrence and I gave him some music and he came back. The day we had rehearsals—him, myself and Brint Anderson—me and Brint just looked at each other and said, “Wow, where’s this kid from?” He’s from Baton Rouge! He’s been in the band almost eight years now. Now he’s the funky Meters drummer as well.

In terms of Runnin’ Pardners, you mentioned that you have an album in the can, ready to go. What’s that album all about?

That’s the Runnin’ Pardners record. We recorded that probably two and a half years ago. I kind of got away from it and started doing this solo idea. At the time, we got a call from the Maple Leaf because Jon Cleary was leaving to go on the road and they had these Mondays open and he said, “Do you want to put together a trio for this Monday night?” It was the whole month, so I said I should do it and keep my band working. I did one with Terrence, Mike and myself. I did the second one with Terrance, Brint and myself. And I did the third one with Terrence, Khris [Royal] and myself. I used all the Runnin’ Pardners in a trio configuration. For the fourth one, I went back to Terrence, Mike and myself, and it’s been now almost two years.

Does that album that you had recorded with the Runnin’ Pardners have a specific theme or vibe to it?

It’s typical Runnin’ Pardners. I’m leaning towards adding more horns to it. Khris is on the session but I’m thinking I should bring back my horn section.

A previous Runnin’ Pardners recording project that I always thought was interesting was when you revisited some of The Meters songs that never got their due and gave them a nice little documentation. Can you talk a little bit about the thought process of visiting those songs and figuring out how to rerecord them?

It wasn’t a thought process at all—those were songs that needed to be played. Somebody needed to play those songs. I couldn’t get The Meters to do it, so I said, “To hell with it.” I called up my Pardners and said, “We have got to do this right.” I gave them 24 songs, we recorded 16, we put 14 on the record and gave the other two away on our website. In fact, you can still go get them. They’re still on the website, still up there for free. There are still eight more that haven’t been touched. I’m going to piss somebody off, I know that. The Meters recorded 138 songs, or something like that. Over the years, we’ve limited ourselves to what we think people want to hear. That means that a good 100 and some of those songs haven’t gotten played. There were probably 70 of them that never ever got played; they got recorded and that was the end of it. They never made it to the stage. The first record that the Runnin’ Pardners did was those songs that had never been played live by any of The Meters bands. I thought that maybe at some point I should go back and record every one of those Meters songs that never got played. Because they were good songs. They weren’t considered the hits, but I’m not all about that shit. Oops. I’m about the music. I think that if you give the song your 100%, the song is going to be good. It’s not all the time—it shouldn’t be—but I understand that people have to do what feels good to them. I can’t beat nobody up. I’m too old to beat on people.

Now you have all these different outlets to explore the different parts of the canon at different points with different projects…

I’ve made different suggestions, as hard as it is, and said we can probably get 13 gigs if we announce that we’re going to play each one of those 13 albums in their entirety. That’s a dream, but hopefully it’s not just a pipe dream.

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