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Gretchen Parlato: Norwich, UK, May 20, 2011

Bruce Lindsay By

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Gretchen Parlato
The Playhouse
Norwich, UK
May 20, 2011

Gretchen Parlato has achieved something that is increasingly difficult in contemporary jazz, where originality and innovation seem too often to be viewed as barriers to a vocalist's success, rather than qualities to be praised and nurtured. She has merged her distinctive vocal style with an intriguing selection of material to create a sound that is unique and utterly compelling. Parlato's first British appearance outside London, courtesy of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, gave the Norwich audience a chance to see how this mix might work in performance; on this evidence, it works beautifully.

While Parlato's style is distinctive, it's not without reference points: there's an openness and fragility to her delivery that echoes Billie Holiday; an R&B sensibility that reflects Erykah Badu; and a soft and ethereal edge that has links with Scandinavian singers like Stina Nordenstam and Sofia Jernberg. Were she to use her voice simply to reinterpret The Great American Songbook the results would, no doubt, be intriguing, but Parlato is not content to tread the straight and narrow mainstream path. Instead, she writes new songs,; and seeks out the lesser-known, the unusual, and occasionally the out-of-fashion which—sometimes with the addition of her own lyrics-she reimagines and reconstructs to superb effect.

Parlato is not the most physically demonstrative onstage performer; she remained fairly static throughout the performance, except when playing a selection of small percussion instruments on tunes such as "Alo, Alo." But she has presence and charm, readily enabling her to hold the audience's attention throughout her 90-minute set, and she has a sympathetic and talented trio of musicians behind her.

Most of the set was taken from Parlato's The Lost And Found (ObliqSound, 2011): "Winter Wind" and "How We Love" were particularly affecting; her take on Thelonious Monk's "Ugly Beauty" warm and touching. She performed Mick Hucknall's "Holdin' Back The Years"—a major international hit for Simply Red in the '80s—in such an intimate and personal way that it could have been written especially for her. Another intimate moment occurred when bassist Alan Hampton swapped double-bass for acoustic guitar, joining Parlato at the front of the stage for a duet on their jointly composed love song, "Still."

While keyboardist Taylor Eigsti and Hampton both played with skill and showed some creative touches, it was drummer Kendrick Scott who took the musical honors on the night. His delicate, brushed, drum patterns that segued "Inner Dream" and "Holdin' Back The Years" together were expertly controlled; his sense of dynamics was acute; and his ability to shift from gentle, almost imperceptible washes of sound to rock-solid, emphatic beats was faultless. At times, the sound balance was a little too strongly in favor of Scott's drums, which meant that some of the subtler nuances of Parlato's singing and Eigsti's piano were rather overwhelmed, but such occasions were relatively few.

Despite critical success, Parlato is still relatively unknown in the UK. The quality of her music and her performance at the Norwich Playhouse suggests that her profile will soon be on the rise, and deservedly so.

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