If there is a mesmerizing voice in jazz today, one that you can’t categorize too easily, nor you can compare to others — for its texture is completely different from the rest — that would be Gretchen Parlato’s. She is also one of those voices that you either love or hate, and perhaps there is no much room left in between; it is the price you pay for fearless individuality. So far, Parlato has gracefully owned her territory ever since she won the 2004 Thelonious Monk Institute International Vocal Competition, and with three acclaimed albums under her belt she can easily proclaimed to have found a gravitational center that many vocalists spend all of their lives searching for. That alone should speak volumes.
For those who “get her,” Gretchen Parlato is a sweet breath of fresh air, blowing softly into the jazz world with every song. The way she seems to understand musical sounds and voice is always paired up with the way she appears to blend with that atmosphere the musicians she trusts with her vocal creativity build around her. I once saw her walking by me to her table at the Village Vanguard (a table that included drummer Kendrick Scott) in New York City, and that same vulnerable aura you hear in her singing seemed to be following her. Her delicate, yearning voice becomes her, even when she doesn’t sing. I suppose that is when you know the art is breathing in its purest form possible. Nonetheless she has performed with legends such as Herbie Hancock, Kenny Burrell and Wayne Shorter, with other fellow vocalists (Gregory Porter), and has recorded with some very celebrated jazz musicians of today such as bassist Esperanza Spalding and drummer and producer Terri Lyne Carrington. She must be doing something beautifully right.
In October 2013, Obliq Sound presents a live album, Live in NYC, that includes a delightful small and ultimately essential DVD with some of the songs featured on that same performance, which gives the listener the opportunity to see her and the musicians in action. Taylor Eigsti is on piano and keyboard, Alan Hampton and Burniss Earl Travis II on bass and voice, Mark Guiliana and Kendrick Scott on drums (Scott so happens to have a couple of these guys in his own Kendrick Scott Oracle’s “Conviction” album, which perhaps gives you an idea of the proximity of creative connection between him and Parlato). This is an album for introspection and feeling, and album that leaves the lines of communication wide open between the listener and the music. Her vocal smoothness takes the musicians into a realm of utter happiness, and whether you watch the video or simply listen to the CD you can feel that whole universe of bliss. Parlato’s voice is an instrument she guides – sometimes with small percussions – and plays with, never leaving her gentle glow behind.
My personal picks:
“Holding Back The Years,” lyrics and music colliding in perfect balance, with Alan Hampton’s background vocals and Taylor Eigsti’s piano effortlessly intermingling with drummer Mark Guiliana throughout the whole track; arranged by Robert Glasper.
“Better Than,” with words that are a caress in the heart, even with the pain and yet the hope they portray…
this precious heart, broken apart/just leave it there and let it go/cuz all I know’s there’s nothing better than/how it keeps beating, it keeps repeating/a blessing in disguise/dry my eyes and realize/there’s something better than/try to find all the beauty you have inside/’cuz the truth in love will survive/tell me how can it end if it hasn’t a chance to begin/’cuz we’re blind by the darkness of in between/moving through you into a dream/there’s a sky full of stars/so just be who you are
..a heart that stays there, listening, feeling, becoming. The audience joins in and then you know they know what you know that she knows: that through it all, love remains in oneself, intact, brave and timeless.
To say that this is a stunning project doesn’t even begin to cover it. Take your time, sit with it, breath the sounds, feel the fairy dust-like musical environment…and dare to be one of those who love Gretchen Parlato. You may just realize that is indeed the only way to go.