Gretchen Parlato: On All Things Lost and Found

Photo by Angelika Beener

“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.”

Photo by David Bartolomi

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.

Photo by David Bartolomi

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.'”

Courtesy of Gretchen Parlato

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.

L-R Dayna Stephens, Alan Hampton, Gretchen Parlato, Kendrick Scott. Courtesy of Gretchen Parlato.

“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.

Gretchen and Esperanza Spalding. Courtesy of Gretchen Parlato

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.”

Agreed.

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.

71 responses to “Gretchen Parlato: On All Things Lost and Found

  1. It’s amazing; taking a broad genre/ category and finding your specific fit: personalizing it, editing it, stepping out of bounds and borrowing from everywhere. A musician is successful – not because s/he has found fame and recognition, but because s/he has been able to find his or her own style, to be comfortable in it, and to live in it. That is what I’m trying to do — in my music, and my writing. To just be myself, and not try to fit any other mold.

    Aun Aqui

    • That’s what it’s all about! That’s all we can do.

      I read a quote from Steve Jobs yesterday that basically said that our time here is short, and so we had better spend it not trying to live the life of someone else. It’s so true. Once you realize what you’re meant to do, as it sounds like you have, everything else falls into place. Thanks for your comment, and all the best in your artistic expressions.

  2. “There is a surge of modern and daring Jazz which is free from the anchors of fulfilling nostalgic expectations, which is authentic.” I couldn’t agree more and I hear this listening to Gretchen, and Esperanza too. Thanks for touching on that, if only briefly. I recently became, almost offended by how original this album sounds, her voice alone, the masterful musicians along with her, it’s like I couldn’t imagine a cover of her songs being done by anyone, Gretchen is literally that unique :O And personally, I’m glad to hear that she sees the music as a group dynamic, not just about the singer, for me the realisation that in music, each individual musician in a band is equally dependant on each-other musician, is very important! And there seems to be great evidence of this when you hear/watch them, live too!
    Thanks for the article, stimulating!

    • You’re welcome, Eoin!

      Sure thing. I think it is important to touch on things that are not necessarily easily calculable (and in art, what is, right?) but desperately need attention. We have to deal with these things, if the art is going to continue to thrive. And I think it sparks really interesting perspectives, like yours. I hear you on everything you’re saying. LOL @ “almost offended”…I like that.

  3. Hi Angelika, lady you’ve done it again. Your writing(s), somehow always brightens up my day! I’ve been away for a just a moment, but I am still checking out your posts regularly. Keep on doing what you’re doing. Peace and love, Rob

    • Now you’ve made MY day! Rob, thank you for your continued support — it’s a big deal, and I really appreciate it. I promise to keep going! It’s inspiring notes like this one that make it easy.

      Peace and love.

  4. Thanks for this post. I heard Ms. Parlato on NPR not to long ago and was just enthralled with her voice. She is now in heavy rotation on my “chill” playlist. She is a well-trained singer with a pure and authentic voice. I would love to see her on the 27th but, it looks like commitments will have me out of town at that time, but hope to catch her at BAM in December.

      • Oh my goodness, I am in love with her music. I should be the one thanking you for helping me discover such a phenomenal musician. At first, I couldn’t decide whether I liked her voice more or the music more. I now realize it’s the way her voice and the music fit so smoothly together that captivates me.

      • You’re welcome, and I’m really happy to hear. I know that feeling when you discover music that just blows you away, it is an awesome feeling! Happy for you. Yes, the musicians are all deep, WONDERFUL artists in their own right, you should check out their individual projects as well – AMAZING.

  5. Title: Alternate Takes/ Broadening the Jazz Perspective

    Creator: Angelika Beener

    Date: October 6, 2011

    I really like this story because Gretchen really is good. Should listen to her albums. Her story was amazing.

  6. Great write-up. I’ve been an fan of Gretchen since she was a student at the Thelonious Monk Institute and it’s been wonderful seeing her progress and grow in her music. I love how you really showcase her lovely personality and musical philosophy, which I agree with 100%. Beautiful article, thanks for covering her story.

  7. What a stunning review — thanks. I love some jazz and don’t care for others but I will certainly check her out. As someone who has been a conformist most of my life, I admire those who are willing to be the person they are meant to be. Many of us need to be more willing to please ourselves and less concerned about pleasing others.

  8. Hello! I just would like to give an enormous thumbs up for the great information you’ve gotten right here on this post. I will likely be coming again to your blog for more soon.

  9. WOW Angelika!…
    Your passion for the music and the artist clearly shines through in this article. Whenever Gretchen’s voice comes through on my radio during “Evening Jazz” I find myself instinctively reaching for the volume knob to turn it up! LOVE her voice.

  10. Pingback: Around The Jazz Internet: Oct. 21, 2011 | Jazz Forum

  11. Pingback: Celebrating One Year of ‘Alternate Takes’ | ALTERNATE TAKES

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