Recent Listening – Gretchen Parlato

Gretchen Parlato is a young jazz singer who has charmed much of the jazz world with her new release, In a Dream.  It’s a clever, soulful record, full of interesting tunes and top notch playing and singing.

I admit that I did not immediately warm to Parlato’s voice.  It’s clean and unfussy – almost to a fault.  Unencumbered by any of the little stylistic tics one often hears in jazz singers, on a first listen it sounded as if her voice didn’t have much character.  However subsequent listens showed a sharp intelligence at work and some highly refined musicianship.  And the voice itself slowly reveals a lovely purity, which I have come to relish.


Her band is stunning.  The apparently ubiquitous Lionel Loueke is here once again, adding his distinctive guitar work, fragrant with the scents of Africa.  Add Aaron Parks, Kendrick Scott, and Derrick Hodge – young, superlative jazz lions all – and you have a frighteningly good set of musicians.  Parlato has chosen some interesting songs, too – lesser-known tunes by Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Duke Ellington establish her jazz bona fides, and there’s some distinguished bossa nova singing, too.  Add a track written by Robert Glasper for a dose of bang-up-to-date hip, and she has all bases covered.  But one of the most interesting tracks is the opener, a song by Stevie Wonder called “I Can’t Help It”, in which Parlato continues the time-honored tradition of giving pop songs the jazz treatment.

Jazz musicians have always plundered popular songs for inspiration, whether Tin Pan Alley warhorses or (in the case of Sonny Rollins) old movie themes and calypsos remembered from more youthful days.  These days, Radiohead is a particularly popular choice because their songs are more complex than most.  In general, though, today’s jazz musicians have to work harder at this game, because most present-day pop confections aren’t as musically interesting as they used to be.  Wonder’s song, though nice enough, is a case in point.  Here’s the most famous version, which was recorded by Michael Jackson on Off the Wall:


OK, all very nice and lovely.  Old MJ, bless his florescent cotton socks, could certainly sing a bit.  But have a listen to Gretchen’s new version:


And here, you’re in a different realm entirely.  Michael sang it sweet and soulful, but this… in a stripped-down arrangement, Parlato’s timing is razor-sharp, her breathy, syncopated lines turning the tune into an ethereal bossa nova, of all things.  Loueke’s curious vocal clicks add spice; his guitar a little sugar.  It’s all gorgeous, and a wonderful example of how good jazz can take a familiar thing and wring from it something completely different and rather wonderful.

Parlato’s website is full of good stuff and you can listen to a lot of the album there.  Check it out.  Highly recommended.

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