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Gretchen Parlato: Pursuing Her Passion

Gretchen Parlato: Pursuing Her Passion

Courtesy Lauren Desberg


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You're always eternal students in this genre of jazz.
—Gretchen Parlato
"I haven't gotten dressed up like that for a few years," says singer Gretchen Parlato with an infectious chuckle. "It'll be nice."

The unassuming and down-to earth Parlato was breezily referring to the 2021 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Jan. 31. Her latest album Flor (Edition Records), inspired by the music of Brazil, is nominated in the best jazz vocal album category. She lives in LA and will attend.

"When you get nominated, it's really not about winning, it's more about just feeling grateful for that nomination," says Parlato. She's happy to be involved. For a time even before COVID she was on a bit of a hiatus, curtailing her activities to focus on being a mother. Then COVID hit, which stifled the entire music community. "Now we can go back and have an award ceremony in person. It's an exciting, full day and evening of honoring everybody and having fun. So that's gonna feel good."

While the pandemic still has an impact on the world, it has been a good year for Parlato. The album is thrusting her back in the limelight. She has also joined the SFJAZZ Collective, being a part of the stellar group's latest album and touring with the group, which will take up a lot of her time in 2022. She'll be moving forward in a career that started to blossom in 2004 after she moved to New York City from the west coast and won the then-titled Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Vocal Competition. (It is now the Herbie Hancock Institute).

It is the second Grammy nomination for Parlato, following Live in NYC (ObliqSound), released in 2013. She's recorded with the likes of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Marcus Miller and Terrence Blanchard and has been featured on around 90 albums, aside from the five under her own name. She is an artist, not a song stylist, though in some sense she is also the latter.

Flor was recorded in January of 2019 and released in 2021. "It's beautiful," she says. "It didn't need a Grammy nomination to feel good. But of course, there's no denying that it is quite an honor. And it helps you feel validated and justified."

Parlato curtailed her activities when she and her husband, drummer Mark Guiliana, had their son Marley. The album is influenced by that, in addition to Latin vibes. Parlato was able to convey some of her thoughts and feelings about motherhood through her art.

"My son was probably around 4 when I had the realization to try that album idea out. I think it was a good three or four years of choosing to have less performing, devoting and dedicating my time and my energy to completely getting wrapped up in motherhood. And it was so wonderful," the singer says. "But I always knew music was going to be there. I just had to give myself that time, as a creative person. I knew it was just a matter of time before I was able to balance that better and allow that to be more fun ... I was thinking motherhood was my hiatus and now I'm returning. Everybody has their own version of coming into themselves, and then having to come come back out and blossom again. I like to see that as a metaphor."

After the album was recorded, it took the good part of 2019 to complete everything. The album's release and a tour were being planned just before the pandemic shutdown of 2020. While things were at a standstill, Parlato connected with Dave Stapleton of Edition Records. "All these things take time. Looking back now, it's all meant to be. It all makes sense. This project kind of bloomed and blossomed out of a time where everybody was taking a break."

"Now our son is seven, almost eight. I'm learning as I go to find the balance. You find a way to incorporate motherhood and parenthood and the energy of your child into the art and to have them realize and live that passion with you," she says. "So it feels good now that he can be a part of it. He actually sang on the album. He's gone to hear Mark play shows and he goes to studio sessions. He can hear mom's performances too. So it's nice to be able to share that as a family. So I look forward to continuing to create even more."

Parlato's love of Brazilian music that comes across on Flor springs from musicians including Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim. "When I first was exposed to it as a teenager, that love just kind of stuck. I realized—when I got pregnant and had my son and just took some time to focus on motherhood—that to do a project where I could tap into that love really inspired me."

On the recording is Brazilian guitarist Marcel Camargo, with whom she has performed periodically for some 30 years. "I just had this realization that I should do a Brazilian album with him. So I asked if I could use some of the players that he had worked with and use the unit he created." That brought in Artyom Manukyan on cello and Leo Costa on drums. Guiliana, pianist Gerald Clayton and renowned Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira have guest appearances. The flowery art on the cover is the work of Parlato's mother.

The album opens with "É Preciso Perdoar," popularized by Gilberto in 1973. It starts with an ethereal feel, then Parlato's breathy, sensual voice enters, hitting the right inflections, negotiating complicated melodic runs, but making them look easy. "Sweet Love" is a re-working of music from Anita Baker. It has a funky edge over which she applies her dexterity of voice and deft handling of rhythm. It is far from a Baker imitation. "Wonderful" is written by Parlato. The lyric comes from her experiences with her son and is a testament applying to all children. The tempo contains a constant energy. "What Does a Lion Say?" exhibits how Parlato's alluring voice can beckon the listener to enter the world that the words have created. Her charisma as a singer almost goes unnoticed it's so natural.

Touring with the music of Flor will be intermittent because of Parlato's obligations to the SFJazz Collective, the now well-known group of superb musicians who tour each year, usually recording and playing the music of one particular artist. Subjects have included Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter and Stevie Wonder. Personnel changes occur periodically. This year, Parlato was added. Another change is that the music being performed is not related to one particular artist.

"It's music that's in response to the times that we're living in," says Parlato. "They decided not to focus on a composer, but to allow everyone in the ensemble to write music that speaks about the way of the world and how everyone's living and connecting and everything. All the issues that we're facing. So there's a lot of original material and there's some arrangements of important music like Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On,' and Abbey Lincoln's 'Throw It Away.' It's a different theme than the past where they've honored a specific composer. We'll be touring that throughout 2022."

The band did some concerts in 2021 and has a busy schedule for this spring and summer in the U.S. and Europe.

"The band is incredible. Great people. When I was asked to take part in it, it was a thrill. It really helped to get me back into the feeling of performing and touring and writing. It was a great way to kind of step back in after a pretty slow pandemic time, musically. I'm really very grateful and honored to be a part of it," she says.

There are two singers in the band, the other being Martin Luther McCoy. "We each have solo moments. Martin is singing 'What's Going On?' I sang 'Throw It Away.' Kendrick Scott, the drummer in the collective, arranged that piece. There's a lot of originals. I brought in an original piece. It's a mix of rearrangements and original music to make what I believe is a really important statement on the times. Just a great message for people to reflect and connect and try to navigate in the in these times. Not only I'm grateful for it, but it's an important season to be a part of this group, just the feeling seems very connected and universal. And I'm looking forward to the touring. That's going to be great to bring that music to the States and to the Europe."

If the pandemic's resurgence can be held in check, it will be a busy year for Parlato.

The singer comes from an artistic family and her talent can be traced to that. Her father, Dave Parlato, played bass with Frank Zappa and also worked with folks like Al Jarreau, Henry Mancini and Buddy Rich. He was also a recording engineer. Her grandfather was Charlie Parlato, a trumpeter who played in some big bands and was part of Lawrence Welk's aggregation for a time. Her mother is an artist and had a radio show in the 1940s.

"Aunts and uncles are artists in some way, whether it's their career or their own hobby," Parlato says. "Everyone seems to have that ability, that talent and that love. So I've known from the very beginning of my existence that the arts are part of every day. Something to do, honor and cherish and to incorporate in your education. Find your passion in whatever you end up pursuing."

She adds, "The arts are a very important and vital part of our lives. I have very good role models ... Sharing the music with my son now that I'm a mother, too. It is so important to instill that love and respect for the arts. And early. Whether he pursues it or not, that's up to him, but just to instill how rich and how wonderful it is. We'll see what happens in the future."

Parlato listened to the music of the 1980s and MTV as a girl. But jazz was played around the house. "So I heard it without even knowing what it was. Without even defining it. It was a very familiar sound."

Her grandmother frequently played records of jazz singers and it brought to her ears the sounds of Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra and Gilberto. Bobby McFerrin later became a big influence. "But I think, like many people of my generation, we're so influenced by all different genres of music and incorporate that into what we do."

She attended LA County High School for the Arts and was in the vocal jazz choir and different jazz combos. "I thought, 'Yeah, let me try this. This seems like a kind of music that I really love and I want to attempt to understand.'"

That led to studying jazz at UCLA, through the ethnomusicology program that was part of the Jazz Department started by famed guitarist Kenny Burrell. In her high school years, there were performance opportunities. But in college she started to put combos together and play at venues around Los Angeles. It was the '90s and "there were always places to to play, whether it was a proper gig or just a restaurant, a bar where you were kind of learning, finding your way and developing repertoire."

She was a known commodity locally. Then she was accepted into the Thelonious Monk Institute, a focused jazz education program. She was the first vocalist to enter the program. She studied there for two years. The institute band did tours in the U.S. and abroad. Then, at age 27, she moved to New York City, aiming for bigger things. People there knew her from the Monk band, but not much else. Eventually she entered the Monk Institute vocal competition and won. That was in 2004. She followed that in 2005 with her first album, the self-released Gretchen Parlato.

"And winning that, I think was really where people were able to hear me, probably for the first time. That was a big moment. Winning and getting that kind of recognition. It was time to get a team together." She got a manager and agent, and eventually an association with Obliqsound Records which put out her next three albums, In a Dream (2009), The Lost and Found (2011), and Live in NYC.

In New York, her career "kind of snowballed with being a guest on other people's projects ... I'm happy about that. I'm very honored and humbled that I was asked to be a part of all these different projects with different people. It always felt good to be asked to sing with other people. And it was a huge learning experience for me, every single one," Parlato says.

Her family moved back to Los Angeles in June of 2019, nine months before the pandemic. "The Flor album had been recorded, but we were still doing post-production all of that year. It was a time to kind of settle back in Los Angeles and start to get excited about the scene again. And then the pandemic hit and that kind of knocked everybody, every single person off," she recalls. "I did always want to come back when it was the right time. I love all the years on the East Coast in New York and in New Jersey, but I do really love being back in Los Angeles."

Parlato has gained accolades from critics and won various awards from magazines and organizations over time. She's also popular with cadre of outstanding jazz musicians of her generation. She looks forward to the adventures and opportunities that lie ahead.

"Freedom, expression and individuality" are the words that come to her when she ponders the genre of jazz. "I feel like you can really be yourself and find your true, genuine, honest voice, whether your vocalist or an instrumentalist. We can all find that. But it is also such a rich tradition to study and to understand and to know. I love that combination. I love that there's that thing of—you learn the rules and then you learn to break them. Then you kind of bust them open. So it's been a really great journey. Learning the tradition and learning it in a textbook, in a school setting, but also just in life. Listening and exploring and hearing, whether it's a recorded piece of music or live concert. Being completely immersed in the music. That's a lesson in itself.

"You're always eternal students in this genre of jazz. There's always more to do, more to learn and more places to go ... People have really found a way to kind of create these branches off of the roots in jazz. Then it branches off into these other directions. I think that's a beautiful thing too. That tradition, that richness, that foundation and then also true freedom to express and explore."

After self-selected time off, then pandemic-dictated shutdowns, Parlato is ready. The Grammy show awaits. But so much more. "It feels like there's nice things to look forward to and it's nice to come back and be able to play out and play live and connect with people."



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