Gretchen Parlato: Quiet Revolutionary

Ian Patterson By

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It's safe to say that singer Gretchen Parlato has her admirers. The Boston Globe praised her as "the most original jazz singer in a generation," and pianist Herbie Hancock has described her connection to music as "almost magical." Saxophonist Wayne Shorter has likened her art to that of Frank Sinatra. It's hard to remember the last time a jazz singer has created such a stir and excited such high praise. The growing chorus of admirers is not without good reason; Parlato possesses a voice of ethereal beauty which seduces instantly. Her delivery holds something of the vulnerable intimacy of Billie Holiday, and trumpeter Miles Davis—a major influence on Parlato. In 2004 she became the first ever vocalist to be admitted to the Thelonious Monk Institute, where she undertook the role of the trumpet—two facts which tell their own story.

Parlato is no new kid on the block, having sung as a side-woman on nearly fifty recordings since moving to New York in 2003. Her unique voice has lent its magic to a surprising range of musical styles, from bebop to Brazilian music, and from pop to folk. Her first two albums sounded the arrival of a significant new singer who wasn't afraid to put lyrics to compositions by the likes of Shorter, Hancock and Davis. Parlato's third album as leader, The Lost and Found (Obliqsound Records, 2011) sees Parlato the songwriter and lyricist emerging more fully, and the results are transfixing. Intuitive musical collaborators, bassist Derek Hodge, drummer Kendrick Scott, pianist Taylor Eigsti, guitarist/vocalist Alan Hampton and tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens play a wonderfully sympathetic supporting role, which encourages and inspires Parlato, though this is a hugely impressive collective performance.

Flattered by all the praise, Parlato humbly eschews comparison with the greats of the past; nevertheless, there is a sense that she already belongs in the pantheon of great jazz vocalists. In the long overdue DVD, Icons Among Us: Jazz In The Present Tense (IndiePix Films, 2009), trumpeter Terence Blanchard states: "History will tell a tale...there's a movement about of some young guys, that's the quietest revolution in jazz I've ever heard in my life."

Parlato is undoubtedly one of the most exciting talents to emerge in this incredible generation—this movement, of young talent which is defining and shaping modern jazz. Respectful of tradition, yet equally inspired by her contemporaries, Parlato is expanding the standards repertoire and pushing the expectations of what a jazz vocalist can do. She is, in her own way, a quiet revolutionary.

All About Jazz: The Lost and Found is a deep, beautiful album; you must be very satisfied with the way it's turned out.

Gretchen Parlato: As I've humbly said, I am satisfied [laughs]. I am very humble about it but I am very happy with the complete package. It does feel good.

AAJ: Is the title inspired by saxophonist Dayna Stephens' tune of the same name from his album The Timeless Now (CTA Records, 2007)

GP: Yeah, it did. The song already had that title, even as an instrumental piece and Dayna Stephens asked me to write lyrics. So, I thought of ideas that stemmed from this concept of the lost and found. In developing the lyrics I came to the realization that our existence is the acceptance of the opposition of the lost and found ,all the time; every day, every moment of our lives feeling good or feeling bad, light and dark or up and down. In the bigger picture sometimes you feel that everything is wonderful and then something tragic happens and there's no explanation for it. This is just life. I was thinking of how this concept develops in our everyday experience, but also in music.

AAJ: Is this also your experience making music?

GP: Yeah, absolutely. In music there is tension and release, the opposition of sound and space. It's very relevant with music and art in general.

AAJ: The Lost and Found marks something of a departure from your previous two albums in that you've emerged more as a songwriter; how does this album feel to you, compared to the others?

GP: There's a lot more of my own writing on this album so it ends up being much more personal than the first two. There's more of my own music and lyrics, so it feels a lot more revealing.

AAJ: You also co-produced this CD along with Robert Glasper; how challenging and how rewarding was this aspect of the making of The Lost and Found?

GP: Oh, very, very rewarding, and there was no challenge whatsoever; it was the smoothest running recording session you could ever imagine. That's because Robert and I have been friends ever since I moved to New York almost eight years ago. We have collaborated on music together and we have a very similar mindset on how we feel and think about music. Everybody in the band loves and respects him. There's a lot of admiration for him from the other musicians. He was able to come in as another ear for us and help us develop the cohesive sound of the band. He had great input and direction and gave great feedback. Robert is mostly known for his positive energy. He always makes you feel good, positive and inspired. And he'll make you laugh [laughs] and we all need that. When everyone has a positive attitude it makes the music that much better.

AAJ: Did you have a greater desire to be involved in the production this time because a lot more of the music was written by you?

From left: Robert Glasper, Gretchen Parlato

GP: Yeah; I've only put out three albums and I've kind of played the producer role each time. Each album has been my own seed that's blossomed. I've always had help from people but the idea of being in control of a project as an artist is something that has been necessary for me so I've been lucky to have had that control from the beginning.

AAJ: Your lyrics on The Lost and Found are often quite poetic; are you inspired by any particular lyricists or songwriters in that regard?

GP: I have such wonderful peers who happen to be brilliant songwriters so I get inspired by other singers that I know and love who are around me; those would be Becca Stevens, Rebecca Martin and Alan Hampton. There are always the classics like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, artists who know how to state something so profoundly and so eloquently. And sometimes lyrics that are a little less obvious; I like the intrigue of allowing the listener to think a little about a very personal line, you know, what do they even mean by that? [laughs] Knowing that there's something underneath the lyric, besides the obvious.

AAJ: One of the standout songs on a uniformly strong album is "Winter Wind"; it's a very good example of how music and lyrics go very much hand in hand. Could you tell us a little about this song?

GP: Yeah, thank you for that. I was inspired by a line that I saw in a Robert Frost poem. "He was a winter wind"—I took that and ran with the idea of using the imagery of the seasons and how that can connect with love. Beyond that, there's a deeper sense of accepting where you are in your life and it's about the fine line between holding on and letting go. Perhaps that's really what the song's about.

It was an idea on paper but I have to give the band a lot of credit for bringing that song to life. The wind effect, musically, has a lot to do with [drummer] Kendrick Scott, and how he shaped that song. Every song that I write on paper is very simple and when I bring it to the band that's where all of this magic happens and where the direction is realized. I love working with these musicians so much because they help me to realize each piece of music.
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