Gretchen Parlato - Singing to feel the joy


Gretchen Parlato has an outlook that will chime with anyone who has ever read Susan Jeffers’s classic self-encouragement tome Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway. More than once in her career, the Los Angeles-born, New York-based jazz singer who is currently carving a reputation as ‘the one to watch’ has found herself taking on a challenge that she’s found daunting at the time but can now look back and realise that she’s benefited from the experience.


Indeed, the fact that she’s now a jazz singer stems directly from an assignment at high school when a solo singer was required to front the school’s jazz choir on a version of Miles Davis’s So What, which is meat and drink to any jazz instrumentalist but a different proposition for a teenage singer taking on the vocalese that singer Eddie Jefferson put to Davis’s melody.


“I volunteered and then wished that I hadn’t,” says Parlato. “But then I went ahead and found that I could do it. There was a challenge involved but in a good way and actually because it was a style of music I could relate to, there was a comfort in doing it. Something similar happened later at the Thelonious Monk Institute when I had to write lyrics to a Wayne Shorter tune, Juju, as an assignment. Again it was daunting but I found I enjoyed writing lyrics and now it’s part of what I do as a singer.”


It’s no surprise that Parlato should relate to jazz. Her father, Dave, is a jazz bass player – he recorded with maverick orchestra leader Don Ellis in the 1960s, although he’s perhaps best known for his contributions to Frank Zappa albums including Zoot Allures and Sleep Dirt and he toured with Zappa’s Mothers during the 1970s. With a mother, Judy Frisk, who played piano and violin and was involved in visual art (she’s now web site designer to several high profile musicians), Gretchen and her sister were exposed to music and art virtually from the cradle. Samples of Gretchen singing quite credibly at the tender age of two were woven into her second album, In A Dream, and her first ambition was to star on Broadway.


“Musical theatre generally was a big interest and later I tried improv comedy,” she says. “Both of these experiences came in really useful because as a singer and the main focus of attention, you have to learn to be at ease onstage and in jazz especially, you have to be able think on your feet and go with the moment, which you also need to do in improv comedy.”


In 2001 she took probably the most significant step in her career so far when she became the first singer to be accepted into the Thelonious Monk Institute in Los Angeles, where first she had to impress a panel of experts comprising Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Parlato’s fellow Glasgow Jazz Festival 2011 star, trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard. By all accounts Parlato sailed through her audition.


“It was a really emotional challenge having to sing to these living legends,” she says. “But the best thing about the Institute is that these same living legends, and others, come in and work with the students. So you get to spend quite a lot of time with people who have been at the top of the business, in some cases for forty years or more, and they give you lessons and take workshops and they’ll perform alongside you. It actually lets you form quite close musical relationships with people you might otherwise only have dreamed of meeting.”


Hancock and Shorter went on to endorse Parlato’s singing when she graduated from the Institute and turned fully professional, with Shorter joining her in concert on occasion, although it’s Blanchard whom Parlato credits with encouraging her to become a songwriter as well as singer.


“Terence was taking our class ensemble through Wayne Shorter’s Juju and because I was the singer, he suggested I should write lyrics to it,” she says. “I was terrified at the thought, especially since the composer of this jazz classic was probably going to hear what I’d done, but I pretended to know what I was doing. I’m lucky in that I work quite well under pressure and as the deadline approached I found myself enjoying what was basically a class assignment. It was actually quite therapeutic and I realised that I had something to say as a lyricist, so I continued to write lyrics and now I’m working on my own melodies too.”


Her latest album, The Lost and Found, finds Parlato adding words to compositions by Miles Davis (Blue in Green) as well as her producer, the brilliant pianist Robert Glasper, and the outstanding young pianist and keyboards player Taylor Eigsti. She also sings her own take on Simply Red’s Holding Back the Years and sounds very natural singing in Portuguese, a language she’s studied so that she can follow her love of Brazilian music.


“My family’s Italian – my grandfather was from Sicily – so I can’t claim any blood ties with Portuguese or Brazilian music but I felt if I was going to sing Brazilian songs, I should know what I was singing about,” she says. “It’s the same when I sing with Lionel Loueke [the Benin-born guitarist and her classmate at the Thelonious Monk Institute who went on to play with Herbie Hancock]: I don’t speak his language but even if I’m just singing a few syllables, I want them to sound like I mean them.”


Meaning what she sings plays a big – make that crucial – part in her choice of songs. She doesn’t entirely avoid the standards that form the basic jazz singer’s repertoire but everything she sings must have a purpose behind it.


“If I do sing something from the Great American Songbook, I’ll give it a different arrangement, maybe with just voice and piano,” she says. “But I’ve reached a stage where there are no throwaways in the setlist, nothing’s tossed into a concert just to get a good vibe going. Any song I sing has to resonate with me so that, in turn, I can make it resonate with the audience and pass on its deeper meaning. That doesn’t mean it has to be heavy. I sing joyful songs, too, but when I do, I want to feel the joy.”


From The Herald, June 30, 2011.

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