Internationally acclaimed vocalist Gretchen Parlato, who plays at Bohemian Caverns this Friday and Saturday, first drew a wide fan base in 2004 as the winner of the Thelonious Monk International Vocal Competition. A flexible and intimate stylist, Parlato has continued to cast her spell on audiences through worldwide tours, television appearances and performances on over 50 albums with artists such as Terence Blanchard, Kenny Barron and Esperanza Spalding. Her latest CD is The Lost and Found, out earlier this month; her second on ObliqSound, this record follows 2009’s chart-topping In A Dream.
Parlato was born into the world of music and art. In her family, art was an essential part of everyday life, and for her that included assiduously listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. In addition to the pop and R&B of the 1970s and ’80s, Parlato fell in love with classical music, world music and Broadway musicals. It was hearing the eclectic vocal master Bobby McFerrin early in her life that inspired her. “It carried a lot of weight,” Parlato said, “knowing the voice was capable of those sounds.”
She was also affected by the bossa nova recordings of Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto. “It was very understated, very subtle and deceptively simple. Accepting that and knowing that it’s okay to be intimate and subtle was important to me. Space is just as important as sound. It’s about honesty and accepting your most pure voice,” Parlato said.
As with her previous work, Parlato gathers material on the new album from various sources, pop tunes, including jazz standards, compositions by saxophonist Wayne Shorter and many originals. “The songs need to move me in some way – melodically, harmonically, the lyrics or something I grew up with, some sense of nostalgia,” she said.
Parlato makes connections with songs of her youth, including in her repertoire Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It” and Simply Red’s “Holding Back the Years.” She explained, “To me it plays as a soundtrack to my life. In this generation, these are our standards.”
Parlato strives to pour her soul into every song, making it thoughtful and giving it purpose. “I want to sing the songs in my own, honest voice – tell my own story,” she said.
Her own story includes lyrics and arrangements of Shorter’s tunes. The saxophonist’s prolific output and lyrical melodies make for a lifetime of material to discover and develop. “The melodies lend themselves to words and rhyme schemes,” Parlato said. “Not that they need lyrics, but the melodies are very singable and deceptively simple. You can take a phrase and displace it, break it down to a pure, simple form and tell your own story with it. It’s genius.” On Parlato’s new record, she includes a rendition of Shorter’s haunting “Juju,” to which she wrote lyrics.
Pianist Robert Glasper has been a favorite collaborator and is the co-producer of The Lost and Found. Glasper and Parlato found a connection with composing and arranging, and Glasper provided another set of ears and also the inspiration to keep the musicians productive and push them in another direction in the studio. “Robert was perfect,” Parlato said. “He knows what I am capable of and he can challenge me.”
On The Lost and Found, Parlato shows that she is capable of crafting music of the same high caliber and sensitivity as her lyrics. With the opportunity to record again, Parlato decided to compose music. “For a long time I blocked myself from that creative outlet. I started with writing lyrics to pre-existing melodies. In some cases the music was written for me to write lyrics. All of my friends are brilliant composers and it feels really great to have that opportunity, but I finally got out of my own way and decided to write something original, all by myself,” she said.
At Bohemian Caverns, Parlato will celebrate the release of The Lost and Found with a quartet featuring the Grammy-nominated Taylor Eigsti on piano, Alan Hampton on bass and Mark Guiliana on drums.
“I’m thrilled,” Parlato said of the opportunity to present the new album. “It’s like a baby. It’s born and you share it. It’s a very personal album. I just enjoy sharing the music and hope people feel something from it. Whatever that feeling is, whatever emotion, as long as it moves or inspires the listener in someway.”
Gretchen Parlato performs at Bohemian Caverns this Friday and Saturday, Apr. 15 and 16. Each night there are two separate sets at 8 and 10 p.m., respectively. Tickets can be purchased here.
Brad Linde is a D.C.-based saxophonist who co-leads the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra.