When vocalist Gretchen Parlato performs a song, she doesn’t so much inhabit it as become inhabited by it, living and breathing a musical and emotional life that is inseparable from the artist. Her singing is personal, and therefore it’s immediate and resonant—and because of that, apparently artless.
Of course, Parlato’s voice isn’t artless. It’s the very apex of artfulness—the result of a combination of innate musicality, persistent education and training both as a musician and a human being, and the cultivation of a voice that communicates her essential self.
You can hear all of that on her first major-label CD release, the acclaimed In a Dream (ObliqSound). Even better, you can hear it live in two shows at the Outpost on Thursday, when Parlato brings in her quartet, with pianist Julian Shore, bassist Alan Hampton and drummer Mark Guiliana .
Parlato’s voice has a delicate, almost fragile quality, and she uses what appears to be a relatively narrow range to great effect. Actually, she possesses a legitimate set of pipes that can reach the back row of a Broadway house.
“I used to sing a lot of musical theater and would actually use my voice in a very big boisterous, belting-out, musical-theater kind of a way,” she says. “When I started to sing jazz and Brazilian music ... my first attempt at singing that, I was using that old, big voice. I realized, This doesn’t sound good. This is not working. It’s not a vibe that I like and the mood that I want to create,” she admits. “So the choice came to actually just find my own genuinely natural sound.”
“The choice came to actually just find my own genuinely natural sound.”
She found it, all right, and it is the natural quality of her voice that captures the ear instantly.
Lovely as that voice is, what sustains interest is something else altogether.
First, there’s Parlato’s innate musicality, her ability to think in complete musical sentences on the fly. You can hear this especially in her wordless vocalizing, where she organizes her ideas into larger, compelling musical structures. She’s had this ability from a very early age, as evident from two tracks on the CD where 2-year-old Gretchen extemporizes at length.
Second, there’s Parlato’s emotional concentricity with the songs she chooses to sing. “You tap into who you are,” she says. “Definitely, every song that I sing that’s in my repertoire is something very thoughtful and very personal. There is a story behind it. I do that work beforehand.”
Parlato is beginning to tell her own stories, too. Two songs on the CD—the title track and “Turning into Blue”—feature lyrics by Parlato and betray depth and wisdom.
“The ideas are stemming from different Buddhist teachings that I’ve read, things that I’ve reflected on,” she says. “The same teachings—if it’s said in a direct, simple way, you get it. I think that’s what spoke to me.”
She’s also making her mark as an arranger. All the songs on the CD are arranged by her alone or in collaboration with either Robert Glasper—with whom she co-wrote the title track—or Lionel Loueke, who appears as guitarist and/or vocalist on most tracks.
For Parlato, it’s all part of her natural progression. “Nothing for me has been overnight at all,” she says. “It’s been a nice, slow and steady journey, and I’ve enjoyed it because I’ve been able to appreciate everything on the way. ... I’m very happy to let things unfold as they naturally are supposed to.”