Gretchen Parlato: Living the dream
I reach Gretchen Parlato’s voicemail. She sings a camped-up version of Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional,” with harmonies provided, I find out later, by Esperanza Spalding. I revel in the infectious goofiness as they sing, “I get so emotional, lady, anytime I hear from you ooh ooh! Ain’t it shocking what a message can do?”
It is not what you might expect from someone with such serious jazz cred as being the first vocalist admitted to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition in 2004 and garnering ardent fans such as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.
One could easily get lost watching Parlato’s hilarious MySpace videos, where she, for example, dons a blue wig and channels menopausal alter-ego Helen. Clearly Parlato is a natural creator and gives herself the freedom to be. That’s why, even though it’s not chock full of comedy, Parlato’s new album, “In a Dream,” a mix of covers and originals, seems to flow effortlessly, as if by kismet.
“Aaron Parks who played piano on the album was pointing out that almost all of the songs have the word ‘dream’ in them somewhere in the lyrics,” Parlato says. “He’s like, ‘You chose it that way’ and I’m like, ‘No, actually.’ But how I think and believe how life works it’s like, of course it makes sense that that’s the end result. So sometimes you don’t know how it’s going to happen but when you stand back and look at the big picture it’s like, oh, of course, everything is in its right place.”
Everything certainly is in its right place on “In a Dream,” which begins with a sensuous, percussive cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It,” best known as performed by Michael Jackson. It’s breezy, accessibly listenable but deceptively so. Just try and keep up with Parlato’s breathy rhythm. In addition, the groove attained by Parlato and Lionel Loueke’s guitar and tongue clicking builds to a place that could make you blush if it weren’t so musically immaculate. It is this combination of studied, steady skill, open collaboration and allowing herself to be vulnerable that makes Parlato’s work sparkle.
When asked, Parlato says her freedom to be goofy has “absolutely” helped her on her journey. She used to close her eyes onstage, she says, and wouldn’t be vulnerable or employ the part of her that is “complete absurdity.”
“The jazz singing that I do is very passionate, is very serious but it can be playful, it can be funny,” she says. “That’s like the goal is to try to bring that kind of attitude, that kind of freedom, maybe, into everything that I do. And I’ve just allowed myself to show people that I’m really stupid and crazy and let it be just another side of me that might come out or might not.”
A California native now living in New York, Parlato went to the L.A. County High School for the Arts and graduated from UCLA, majoring in Ethnomusicology and Jazz Studies, where she deepened using her voice as a percussive instrument, as she’s been doing since she was two.
“Singing came the same time as speaking,” she says and her early family life helped her pursue this life path and keep the right attitude while on it.
“I come from a family of artists and freelancers,” Parlato explains. “And everybody learned very early on that money is a good thing to have but you don’t always have it, you don’t always have to have it to be happy, it doesn’t make you successful or not successful. It’s really about doing what you love to do. I had a really great upbringing and...it was very early on taught that the arts are so important and enriching in our lives. It’s so great that I found that gift or, that some might think, that it found me. However you want to look at it, it’s worked out.”
See how serendipitously it has worked out when Parlato performs at the Newport Jazz Festival on the Waterside Stage, Sunday, August 8th.