“Everyone has a story to tell, and it’s not about trying to sound like anyone else,” singer Gretchen Parlato said to me on a pleasantly balmy fall afternoon, as we sat under a colossal tree in my neighborhood park. We talked about life, love and embracing it all, the good and the bad. When she said those words to me, they resonated particularly deep, as such is true no matter what your career or path may be. It’s a simple statement, but just like we discerned for ourselves that day, the older we get, the more those sagacious sayings take on real meaning. For Parlato, her true understanding of those proclamations has been manifested in her latest work, The Lost and Found.
Her most personal and poignant project yet, Parlato has lived a lot more life, and it shows. The Lost and Found is a story of vulnerability, heartbreak, endurance and revelation. And as in real life, there is no resolve per se; the goal is not to necessarily make sense of it all, nor is it about wishing away the things that we’d rather not go through.
It’s just life.
“It’s actually braver to be vulnerable and let it all out,” says Parlato about the true meaning of courage, a quality she called upon most during her writing for the album. “It’s moving through all kinds of emotions and tapping into love and life philosophies and…this process was all very healing. There are stories behind every song, and yet some people will never know what it is I’m really talking about. [We can be] kind of hesitant about how much we should expose of ourselves, but I think when it’s done in a productive and artistic way, but still kind of mysterious, people can really resonate with that. Nothing I do is really thrown in your face.”
Which brings us to the second part of Parlato’s initial philosophy; she certainly doesn’t sound like anyone else, her voice as understated and enigmatic as her story-telling phraseology. There is a quiet intensity which is as captivating and resounding as voices three times her size. She is a singer who doesn’t proclaim to be someone she’s not. The flip side is that she doesn’t have to; who she actually is measures up. “When I was first coming up, my repertoire was standards,” recalls Parlato. “Swing or Brazilian standards…and so this is like fifteen years ago, or something. People were like ‘Oh, you should do a standards album,’ and I always resisted that. I felt like I don’t know if I have a lot to say with that. So from the beginning, I’ve been off the beaten path with that, so no one is assuming that I’m going to fill this traditional singer role. Maybe that’s because of my natural voice. I don’t really have this Sarah Vaughan or Dianne Reeves kind of jazz singer voice. That’s not my calling and I think I always knew that’s not where my voice should be. And it kind of makes sense to just find what is natural.”
Parlato was afforded priceless space to explicitly discover what her calling indeed is. Born into a long line of entertainers, the arts were ingenerate and commonplace. “Everybody…literally everyone in my family is a musician, or in the entertainment industry, or they didn’t pursue art as a career but they’re talented people,” explains Parlato. “My dad, he’s a bass player and my mom, she played piano and violin, and now she’s a web designer. And then her dad was a recording engineer; he built a studio in L.A. and recorded Ella [Fitzgerald] and Louis [Armstrong], and the Beatles, so it’s in the family. My mom’s mom had a radio show in the 40s…kind of like a “Hollywood Gossip” kind of thing, and on my dad’s side his dad was a singer and a trumpet player. So I just grew up with this knowledge that art was a part of everyday. So it’s also cool to learn early on that it’s a valid profession. There’s no one saying like, ‘You need to get a real job.’ No one was on anyone’s case about making money; it was always just about finding your passion. No one was pushing art on anyone either, but my sister and I happened to both go into art. She’s a graphic designer. So it was just a nature/nurture thing that’s in my blood, and from birth, it was in me.”
As with any jazz musician, growing up listening to the giants is unquestionably influential and essential, but it was an introduction to the music of Bobby McFerrin which would change Parlato’s understanding of how a jazz musician could be perceived and defined. “[From] very early on, I’ve never been a traditionalist, as far as what jazz has to be,” says Parlato as she credits this impressively matured discernment to her childhood experiences hearing McFerrin. His one-man-band performance for The Cosby Show opening theme was particularly impressionable on her young musical pallet. “I heard Bobby McFerrin use his voice in an instrumental way early on in my life. Hearing him, I learned we can do anything with our voices. He shifted my definition of a jazz singer.”
The amalgamation of broad-minded perceptions about jazz and a distinctive approach to those perceptions produced an infectious musical styling, which is signally hers. Sure, there have been other light, airy, velutinous voices that have enchanted us before, but just like Astrud Gilberto, Meredith D’Ambrosio, and Blossom Dearie, Parlato has set herself apart, developing a following that is as vast as her repertoire, and has critics predicting big year-end recognition for her latest album.
The Lost and Found combines jazz, Brazilian and pop aesthetics in one of the most organic ways I’ve ever heard. Parlato credits co-producer Robert Glasper for helping to realize her vision. “I thought, Robert and I have already collaborated on arrangements, and the band is like family to him, and he’s gonna understand what we’re trying to do, and he’s gonna enhance that and I wanted to work with him on some arrangements and collaborations, so I said let’s just see if he’s available, and it ended up working magically,” recalls Parlato. She also enlisted the super-talents of pianist Taylor Eigsti, bassist Derrick Hodge, and drummer Kendrick Scott, musicians with whom she has long-standing musical relationships. The album also includes guest appearances from saxophonist Dayna Stephens, and bassist Alan Hampton, who would contribute the warm and folksy “Still”, which featured Hampton on lead vocals and guitar. “We really did it in two days. It was a smooth-running, stress-free session just because everyone was really focused and everyone respects and loves each other and they all were there for the same goal of let’s just make beautiful music. And Robert took on that producer role like a complete professional. He would say, ‘Let’s get together maybe just with Kendrick and work on beats.’”
It is this mutual musical vastness that has resulted in some of her most surprising and beautiful covers. Parlato’s nostalgic affinity for 90s R&B unlocked a treasure chest of possibilities for the modern jazz vocalist, when she covered SWV’s hit ballad “Weak” on her sophomore album In a Dream. Glasper initially thought the idea to cover the song was a joke, but after Parlato put the lyrics to the lush “Glasperized” re-harms that are so distinguishably his, it was no longer a laughing matter. “Weak” catapulted Parlato into the current soul music scene, introducing her music to a wider, younger, Blacker audience. On The Lost and Found, Parlato struck gold again with the “Stevie Wonder-esque” Mary J. Blige classic, “All That I Can Say”. But it was Glasper’s suggestion to cover a more pop-leaning song that would result in the dynamic album opener, Simply Red’s “Holding Back the Years”.
“When Robert suggested ‘Holding Back the Years’, I thought, ‘Hmm…really?’ It’s such a song that everyone knows,” Parlato confesses. “But he was like, ‘Exactly! Let’s do something that everyone knows, something that everyone will have a connection to.’ So he started playing his “Rob G” chords and immediately transformed the song.”
The song begins with Scott laying a drum groove; it sounds far away and vintage…kind of like when you can hear someone else’s music through their headphones (it’s actually from a cell phone recording). As it fades up, Eigsti and Hodge join in with a gorgeous progression. You can hear Glasper’s voice saying ‘Yeah…yep,’ warmly approving and encouraging the vibe. Parlato is last to come in, interpreting the classic with a breathy angst. One thing signature to Parlato’s performance throughout is that she’s never singing on top of her band, but always seamlessly intertwined. It’s no accident.
“I’ve always enjoyed being a part of an ensemble,” says Parlato. “When I was really young, there was a time when I was realizing that I could sing, but I was really shy as a child, and it freaked me out because I was like, ‘I don’t like all this attention. I don’t like being the center of everyone.’ So there’s always been a part of myself that likes to be part of a team, that’s the first thing. But then I realized being a singer is not about being in front of a band…it’s a band…it’s a team…it’s a joint effort. It’s sounds and space and interacting, and you’re not alone there, so there was always this sense of we’re in this together and I like the fact that I could use my voice as a texture and not just out front. And then beyond that, I was getting into trying to play percussion and get into locking into the rhythm of the ensemble too, so I think when you do that you have no choice but to back up and listen. I can’t just get up there with my shakers and not listening to what the drummer’s doing, you know? It’s about this whole collective sound, and every single person up there is very important and needed and I like giving people their space to be themselves.”
The album is journey provoking, and the songs flow without a glitch. Musically, there are few ensembles that can match this one’s cohesion and finesse. Lyrically, Parlato is so resonant that it’s hard to conceive that the songwriter’s pen has only recently hit the paper.
It was under the tutelage and encouragement of mentor Terence Blanchard that Parlato first tried her hand at writing lyrics. While a student at the Monk Institute, her fellow classmate and friend Dayna Stephens suggested that the ensemble perform the Wayne Shorter masterpiece “JuJu”. Blanchard, who served as Artistic Director, working closely with the band, assigned Parlato to the lyrics. She rose to the occasion with a beautiful proverb-like mantra. Now, on The Lost and Found, Parlato not only wrote much of the music, she also wrote almost all of the lyrics, including those to the songs contributed by the band. In addition to “Still”, Parlato wrote the lyrics to the title track, a composition written by Stephens, who previously recorded the gem under his own name on his stunning debut. She also graced trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s gorgeous “Henya” with hauntingly ethereal poeticism.
Parlato’s growth, like all of ours, is always birthed from treading uncharted waters; rising to an occasion when an opportunity presents itself. For women, especially in jazz, those opportunities are not always so abundant. I wanted to ask Parlato about women as we relate to jazz. Ironically, even as a woman myself, I was careful not to come off sounding cliché, or more importantly, with a patronizing air. It’s a presentation that I am really sensitive about, as I loathe the often condescending attempts at discourse regarding women’s roles in jazz that often result in the most meaningless and stupid suppositions ever. Parlato welcomed the topic, almost seemingly waiting to embrace the opportunity to talk about it. She is at the forefront of jazz singers today, and part of a growing group of female jazz artists at large who are showing women as collaborators. Working frequently with singer/bassist Esperanza Spalding, and a member of Tillery, a vocal trio collaboration with singers Becca Stevens and Rebecca Martin, Parlato is making a huge statement about community, through her collective-minded approach with women, despite the all too convenient clichés about women – especially jazz singers – being catty and diva-like.
“Some people are like, ‘Singers are so competitive.’ It’s a game though,” says Parlato dismissing those banal traps. “If you don’t participate in the game, it doesn’t exist. I got that from my third grade teacher. I remember, her response when another student complained, ‘Johnny is always chasing me at recess!’ The teacher said, ‘So, just stop running.’ The whole thing of being competitive in art is really so simple. Just stop. Don’t participate. That’s not acceptable to create a vibe where we’re against each other because this is a community. Think, what if we support each other and join forces, instead? And with the women I’ve worked with there have never been any issues. With all these women, it is always complete love and let’s just come together and make music. There’s something much bigger and much deeper taking place when I sing with Esperanza, or Becca or Rebecca. It’s just this woman nurturing thing that is kind of unexplainable, but as a woman you just get it. It’s this whole enveloped ‘Blanket of Love’, as Rebecca says. And it’s just very sisterly and completely dedicated. It’s saying I’ve got your back in life and in music, and no one is trying too hard to prove themselves. That’s what is needed in the music.”
Amidst all of these silly “Jazz Is Dead” conversations (that are thankfully getting old), there is a surge of modern and daring jazz which is free from the anchors of fulfilling nostalgic expectations, while remaining authentic. There are excitable artists who are completely themselves, and continuing the momentum of their predecessors. Parlato is among them with all certainty.
“I think for the most part, people have accepted what I do. I’m sure there, of course, are those who don’t like it, but I believe there’s room for everyone. Ultimately, that’s what art is and what it does. It causes a response and reaction. Good or bad, it makes people think and feel something. It triggers, inspires…allows us to reveal. There’s always an audience for each specific artist, so we’ll be cool, we’re all fine.”
In other words…everyone has their own story to tell. Right on, Geeps.♦
Gretchen is part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Listening Party series this month. Join her at JALC on Thursday, October 27 at 7:00 PM as she discusses her latest album. Admission is FREE. For more details, click here.