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Gretchen Parlato

Gretchen Parlato is a cutting-edge vocalist defying categorization, one of the leading voices in the younger generation of jazz-pop singer-songwriters. Her voice is small, intimate, expressive, percussive. Her material is mostly original – melodic, evocative, expressive. She charms the listener into her quiet, cool, fluid, floating sound world gently, but her impact in recent years has been anything but low-key: the most recent of her three solo albums, The Lost and Found (2011) was ranked #1 in half a dozen polls. She's performed and recorded with luminaries such as Esperanza Spalding, Wayne Shorter, Kenny Barron, Marcus Miller, Lionel Loueke, Terence Blanchard, Terri Lynne Carrington. She's recently been voted Best Female Vocalist of the year by Jazz Journalists Association and #2 Best Female Vocalist in the Downbeat Critics Poll.

Gretchen sounds like no one, and no one sounds like her, but in this interview she discusses her affinity and interactions with the most interesting voices of the finest new voices in jazz and beyond, as well as where her own music comes from, and where it may be going.

Here's an hour-long video of her in concert in February, 2013.
Gretchen was interviewed by Jeff Meshel at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, Israel, in August, 2011.

Songfacts: You've talked about being 'inside' with the band and 'inside the music.'

I'd call you a jazz vocalist, as distinguished from a jazz singer. I make that differentiation between singers, from the word 'song,' and vocalists, who are music and jazz, and the song isn't primary.

And I see Luciana Souza and Esperanza Spalding and you and some other ladies to a certain extent as a school in the forming–using your vocal as one of the instruments in the combo, rather than 'singing songs' per se. Maybe it's conscious maybe you guys get together and plan all this. But it seems to me a zeitgeist, something in the air. So first of all, do you agree that there's something different happening here that has never been done before as far as I know in jazz?

Gretchen Parlato: Using the voice as an instrument. I would definitely embrace the idea that's it's a school of a concept and of a sound. And of a new mindset, almost. It wasn't necessarily a conscious thing. The intention, I guess, is 'this is what we need to do and this is what we're going to do to save the world and change the world and save jazz.' It doesn't need to be saved, of course, but to make a statement.

I think the intention really is to be honest and to do what is natural and what feels good and what is exciting and challenging. And that happens to be that realization that our voices are an instrument in themselves. So you can sing lyrics, you can sing songs and focus on melodies and staying inside a certain realm. And then [you can also] completely break through that and definitely take it to another place.

And then there's the movement between all these different places. It's a wonderful school of musicians.

Songfacts: Who else would you put in this school?

Gretchen: Well, you said Luciana, Esperanza, and I think of Lionel Loueke in there, even though he's considered more of a guitarist. But the way he uses his voice, definitely. I mean, he sings and I've learned so much from singing with him – musically in general, but even specifically, vocally. Again, like the voice as an instrument, and also thinking very percussively about what we can do. So it's not just a melodic instrument, but it's a rhythmic instrument, too.

Songfacts: You do that.

Gretchen: Yeah. It's exciting. And that's something that I've always been attracted to, working with other people that really do it very well. To sing with Lionel, if my job is only just to keep time, keep something very constant and straight, that's hard to do, because he's the one weaving around all of that.

Songfacts: And Claudia Acuña.

Gretchen: Sure. I've heard Claudia sing really incredible instrumental lines.

Songfacts: I've heard just kind of hints of it in her.

Gretchen: It's not necessarily her own stuff, but she did this thing with David Gilmore some years ago that just blew me away. Just really intricate kind of lines.

Songfacts: You guest on so many gigs. You're with David Binney, I'm falling in love with David Binney. I've just discovered him.

Gretchen: I know. He's amazing. And he challenges me to sing these instrumental lines that I would think, "I don't think I can do this." And then he'll say, "No, no, no. I think you can." And he'll encourage me and challenge me to push myself to do it.

Songfacts: How does it work with him? He gives you the written music or...

Gretchen: It's both. He'll give me a chart, and he'll also give me a midi file, like a recorded track.

Songfacts: Of him playing the line that he wants you to sing?

Gretchen: No. It's like a program thing. He'll write the chart on the computer and then have the computer play it.

Songfacts: The line that you're supposed to be singing?

Gretchen: My line and also it'll be the chords. So it's a combination of learning by ear and then learning from the chart. And that's the best way for me to learn. Claudia and I have talked about that, too. It's almost like you don't even need the music. You end up having to memorize it, because then it becomes very internal. You're not reading it. For us to kind of really get intricate about it.

Songfacts: It must be very hard.

Gretchen: It's fun.

Songfacts: You read music real well?

Gretchen: I do read music. But this kind of stuff, the really advanced things, it's ear. It's a funny thing, though, because it's something that I can see. You could just learn this by ear and not even know what key you're in, what meter you're in, if you're just memorizing and learning phrases just as shapes and sounds, that's how a lot of these I've learned so many pieces that way. And Lionel, you know, I'm mentioning him again, he writes music that way or learns music that way, where there's like, there's no chart, it's not anything that you have to see, literally. You just learn from feel.

Songfacts: You're talking about you guesting on his CD Virgin Forest?

Gretchen: Yeah. But he was also on my first two albums. And we used to play duo together. We actually have something coming up next year at Carnegie Hall together, the Zankel Hall, the smaller theatre in Carnegie Hall. But it's a thrill.

Songfacts: The two of you?

Gretchen: The two of us. And we even invited Becca Stevens, who I would put in this category, too. She's a exquisite singer. It's another kind of guest situation. I heard her sing these kinds of ideas with Brad Mehldau. He had her sing with him and she's singing these really amazing lines.

Songfacts: You're breaking my heart.

Gretchen: I know. And then if you bought her own album, you might not know that she's capable of that, because her own stuff is very different. It's not even necessarily jazz in any traditional sense, but I think that's what's wonderful about so many of these artists is that everyone's so layered. There's many, many things people are capable of doing.

Songfacts: And Luciana, she's done beautiful guest work with all kinds of people. With Maria Schneider.

Gretchen: Beautiful.

Songfacts: Maria Schneider I somehow associate with this whole cloud, also.

Gretchen: It makes sense, yeah.

Songfacts: I don't know why exactly.

Gretchen: Bobby McFerrin was probably the first of my early first memories of realizing what singers are capable of doing - hearing somebody that can sing such incredible things and do such incredible things with his voice. That's Bobby McFerrin's world. But just to realize and hear that when I was really young, and thinking, "Wow, that's possible. It's humanly possible that a voice can stretch and move and bend."

Songfacts: You're talking about jazz and what you want to do, the kind of music that you want to make. I think Esperanza is an album or two ahead of you and has been working for a little bit longer. But I think you're doing very much the same thing. She's really spearheading a remarkable place in music.

Gretchen: Absolutely.

Songfacts: Between the song and jazz, some of her best stuff is floating in between pop and jazz.

Gretchen: And classical, too. Chamber music.

Songfacts: The new thing. [Chamber Music Society]

Gretchen: Right.

Songfacts: I think it's great for jazz and I know it's great for pop. It makes pop so much smarter and more interesting. And jazz, it forces it to give it a hook here and there and sell some records and be a whole lot more accessible. Do you know what I'm talking about?

Gretchen: I do.

Songfacts: And you're very much, I think, of that mindset.

Gretchen: Yeah. I agree. As long as it's coming from an honest place. Again, it's similar to what I started saying about the intention. I don't think Esperanza's intention is "Let me write a pop song so I can win a Grammy," even though she did. But I think her intention in this is just, "This is the music that comes from my heart and my soul and what is my expression is and why I'm sharing it."

I'm of the same mindset, where it's 'Oh, if it happens to be put in a pop category or a jazz category or an R&B category, that's wonderful.' But I think our intention in the beginning is really just to create and write; and whatever it ends up being, it is what it is.

Songfacts: It's not conscious.

Gretchen: And it is a good thing, like you said, for all the genres of music, I think it kind of just opens up peoples' ears to things they might not have heard before.

Songfacts: What do you want to do? What are your musical/career goals for the next few years?

Gretchen: Right now we're kind of basking in the waters of the current album, of The Lost and Found. It's been out since April, but it still feels very new and it was a long time coming, of actually releasing new material. So I'm the kind of person that doesn't ever get ahead of myself too much and get overly concerned with 'What is the next album going to be? And what do I want to do?' I've been asked that, and I think right now I'm open to anything. I can't say what the next project will be. Maybe something with strings? Maybe Robert Glasper will produce it again, because we had such a great rapport. Maybe it'll go in another direction I have no idea. It's also it's open. I have a moment where I'll have a clear sign that this is what needs to come out.

Songfacts: How cool.

Gretchen: It is cool.

Songfacts: You're young and successful. And getting lots of recognition.

Gretchen: It'll feel right whenever the time comes to focus on that. I think every album, even every concert, every time people ever perform and sing or say anything, it seems like it should just come from the moment and be a reflection of who they are and how they feel. So that's why I don't know who I'll be or how I'll feel in a year from now. So I think with the art of creating music, it's such a direct personal reflection of my own life.

Songfacts: What about money and success?

Gretchen: What's that? [Laughing]

Songfacts: I mean, how much money would you like to make? Twenty times as much money as you're making? Does that drive you? How does that not figure in if you're making a new album?

Gretchen: No. I've been very happily and luckily spoiled by growing up in an artistic family, where they never use the word "money" and "success" together. I think I've always learned from the very beginning, by example, because literally everyone's an artist or an entertainer, a visual artist – where success is not measured by money, it's measured by your happiness and finding your passion and following that and living a life that isn't necessarily normal and maybe routine and grounded. And it's just about finding that peace and happiness.

So money, I've never been really overly concerned with it. It's a good thing, I hope to have it and to not struggle. But I actually don't think about money. It's kind of fluid, right? Money comes and money goes, and it definitely doesn't rule my life or make me determine anything. And that can be good or bad, because I'm kind of in this little floaty world of "Everything's fine!" I don't know if money is here or it's there, I don't know, I'm just living and happy. Or maybe it's a healthy thing for people to be very organized in their finances. I think for me it's just about being open and giving and receiving honesty and love and all of these things that sound very floaty. But that's really what it's about.

Songfacts: Do you tour a lot?

Gretchen: I do. It's hard to realize that I do have a schedule now that is pretty busy. The month is kind of split between being away and being home. I'll be home for a week or two at a time and then out again. And it just keeps going. That's probably another reason why I don't get too far ahead, because that can be overwhelming to look at your schedule and think, How many days am I actually going to be home and where am I going and all these places. It's exciting. But to me it's a lot more fun to just be right in the moment and say, 'Okay, right now, what do I have to pack for this next little stretch?' And I just think of each little increment at a time. And I'm appreciating the moment even more.

Songfacts: How do you grow artistically? You have, I'm guessing, a very full life without growing artistically, without exposing yourself to new things and learning new things. But yet on the other hand, you want to. How do you do that?

Gretchen: That's a great question. For anybody to grow artistically or otherwise, it's about being open, it's about not putting any kind of block on yourself or allowing other things to actually roadblock you, prevent you. Challenges are good, but prevention... Especially with art, it's about listening and watching and observing and interacting and being a part of the community.

Songfacts: Festivals that you go to, performances of friends of friends that you see in New York.

Gretchen: Connections. Exactly.

Songfacts: The music that you listen to on CDs.

Gretchen: All of that. And it can be about any art, any field of art, or even outside of art. So many ideas come to me from doing everyday activities. It's so funny, I just was listening to some unlabeled voice memo recordings from my phone. I record a lot of musical ideas on my phone. And there was the song "Winter Wind" that's on my album - there's a recording of me singing that melody as I was walking down the street in the Village one day in New York. On the recording you can hear my footsteps, you can hear the street sounds, and I just had this little idea and I decided to record a few seconds of it.

There's another melody that came to me while I was doing the dishes. I get inspiration just from everyday life. So there's another example of growing. It can kind of mean that you step away from your work. Like we're here in this beautiful place [Eilat], so I'm sure some inspiration will come if I go sit on the beach.

Songfacts: Yeah, but hotel rooms don't give a lot of inspiration.

Gretchen: Not always. But it's one of those things where you realize you can get it anywhere. It could be sitting on a plane. We're traveling a lot and actually you end up thinking, 'What can I do and what should I do with these hours that I have to just sit, literally?'

Songfacts: Without being too intrusive, do you have a permanent partner?

Gretchen: No. That's another thing, too. I have such a good community of friends, so it's not that I'm this sad, lonely girl. But no, I'm single. And it's nice. I like being free and independent. But I'm 35, so there's a part of me that's like, this is such a good completely-open-anything's-possible time. And then there's another side of me that thinks, Wow, 35. I do want to have kids... you know, it's not that younger, selfish time. So there's part of me that thinks, that would be a different environment, and I'm sure that would inspire all kinds of music and art and songs and ideas when I'm in another world being a partner and a mother.

Songfacts: Very often that doesn't inspire the best music. It's the heartbreaks.

Gretchen: (Laughing) No, no. It's true. I'm hoping, though, that's it's possible to actually write a song that's about something beautiful instead of something heartbreaking. But that's happened. That's where a lot of lyrics, even the recent ones have come from. Everything that happens to us inspires us to express ourselves. And we all share the same scenarios.

Songfacts: Who are your favorite artists?

Gretchen: What kind of art?

Songfacts: Musical or whatever.

Gretchen: Wow. What's this playing, Ella, Porgy and Bess, right?

Songfacts: Bobby McFerrin. I wanted to go back to Bobby McFerrin.

Gretchen: Oh, he's definitely up there in my favorites. Yep. What can I say about him?

Songfacts: Bobby McFerrin's last album, Vocabularies? I'm not a giant fan. I admire him in terms of virtuosity. But musically, I'm not always overwhelmed.

Gretchen: I think my favorite is if you go to hear him just do a solo concert, anytime, even 10, 15 years ago. Or I've seen workshops and concerts, and just him doing something that's improvised.

Songfacts: Have you studied with him?

Gretchen: No, I've met him, and he knows who I am, which I'm so grateful for. But I've gone to his workshops before. Not the ones that are just singers that are more of an intimate setting, but ones where he's singing and demonstrating and interacting. So I've kind of grown up seeing him live and hearing his albums. But to study with him would be incredible, really.

But yeah, I think it's just kind of a love and fascination with how he uses his voice. Literally, this voice is an instrument, showing everything that's possible, and it's always the most beautiful and pure tone. And it's not necessarily ever loud, it's just completely pure and can be very understated, but so effective. And I've always just resonated with that approach.

Songfacts: Do you think that your voice is going to change?

Gretchen: I'm sure it will. Because being 35, I know when I was 19 my voice was different.

Songfacts: I mean the way you sing. You use your voice in a very specific way. The breathiness and the understatement and the softness.

Gretchen: I think it will just mature. It'll just grow with me and age as I do. But I guess this must be my theme of the day: intention. It's not my intention to use my voice in any affected way. We all learn to sing like that and imitate and be a character, but what I'm doing now and what I've come to in finding my voice is really just to have it be an extension of how I speak and who I am. So I think it'll always just be used in that same way and be a reflection of who I am and what I'm doing in that moment.

So I can hear my voice just getting deeper and aged, just growing with me, I guess. But I think it's the same thing I've said a bunch, and I guess when you say it a lot and come back to the same words, that means that there's something true and resonant about them. It's just honesty, it's just something that's pure and unaffected. It's just a very natural thing that you don't have to think about.

Songfacts: Who are some other artists that you admire?

Gretchen: You know who I love is a singer from Mali, do you know Oumou Sangaré? Her voice is so completely connected and emotional and raw and there's really cool things about where her voice is placed and where it resonates. I don't know if you get into that kind of stuff. But it's kind of nasally but in a really good quality. That's fascinating, too: the first question you asked about was instrumental type singers. When we think of using our voices in this way, when it's not necessarily lyrics, you realize it's really about where that note is placed. And if I'm singing along with a trumpet, it might be this kind of placement up here or this saxophone might be lower and more in the back of the throat. It's fascinating to think of placement and resonance and tone, and then think about the shape of your mouth as a resonator, like what vowels you use, what consonants you use.

And that's why you've got to love Bobby McFerrin so much, because it's the details of what he's doing with his voice and how notes are shaped and how they swirl around and come out.

Songfacts: The only instrument made by God.

Gretchen: I like that. That kind of sums it all up.

Songfacts: Yeah. This subject that you just mentioned just now, I like to call them jazz vocalists as opposed to jazz singers. Have you been asked about this? Is it a subject that people talk about?

Gretchen: You know, you mentioned it, and I understand what you mean. But I've never separated vocalists and singers using these words in a different way. To me, they're kind of interchangeable.

Songfacts: I mean to group people like you and Esperanza and Luciana. Have you heard that?

Gretchen: Yeah. I guess that's what people have called it is an instrumental approach to the voice and to singing, where it's kind of moving away from that traditional box of what a singer is supposed to be or even more specifically what a jazz singer is supposed to be, with singing a melody and then kind of stepping away. It's like you can take a solo, even can go back to something as basic as being an improvising singer. But then beyond that - singing with other horns, using the voice as a texture in the band, as a background - it's fun.

Songfacts: Hey, Grégoire Maret [French jazz harmonicist] is here [at the festival]. You should think about a jam with him.

Gretchen: Oh, I love him, yeah.

Songfacts: You're talking about the textures, how you sing with a saxophone or in place of a saxophone. I mean, a harmonica is...

Gretchen: There's a similar range. I guess it depends which harmonica you use. But, yeah, any instrument to me, it's fascinating and it's a nice challenge to think of how those textures are going to blend.

Songfacts: It's the most human instrument, isn't it? The harmonica?

Gretchen: That's a great idea. And texture, that's my favorite concept with every band, just thinking of what's everyone's role? What is needed in the music and what are the different textures that we have and then figuring out how they work together. And you think of where do I need to say something and where should I just listen? It's very conversational, very natural.

Songfacts: And I think somehow that ties into transcending the song as a format. It's the same kind of ballsiness, adventuresomeness to go out.

Gretchen: It is. And it's funny, because I just had a thought, in all of it, though, as much as we can say that it's a more instrumental approach or it's not necessarily song and lyrics, I think there's still something very emotionally connected about it that is that might separate it from being this kind of intellectual instrumental thing. It's like we're still human voices.

Songfacts: It's the voice, it's a human, it's a person.

Gretchen: So even if there's not lyrics, there's still some kind of story underneath. I'm really fascinated with the story and the vibe and the mood of each piece, whether there are lyrics or not.

Songfacts: Do you know of Barbra Streisand's first two albums, the stuff before Funny Girl? When she was like 20, 21, she made two albums with Peter Max, big arrangements, good arrangements, with mostly standards, great American songbook stuff. She was so good. She was so outlandishly good before she decided to become a star. She's obviously the other end of the scale from you, over the top.

Gretchen: Maybe that's the misconception of what I do. Again, it's all about honesty. If I could sing like that, I would. If I could do it really well and I thought that it was a natural pure way, I'd be all over that.

Songfacts: There's a story that some cat was talking to John Coltrane, dumping on Stan Getz's tone being so sweet, and Coltrane said, "Stan Getz, are you kidding? We'd all play like that if we could."

Gretchen: Exactly. So it's really just what is: what is your honest expression? And so it's not that it's trying to be any kind of a way. And I have such an admiration and appreciation for all singers, especially huge voices, like Chaka Khan, or even more recently, like Jazmine Sullivan, all these newer R&B artists, Kim Burrell, there's gospel singers whose voices fill this whole space. My voice does different things, but it's not that I don't I love that.

Songfacts: And it's the whole tradition of the cool old jazz singers from the '50s, they were very minimalist. Blossom Dearie, she's not an artistic mother of yours?

Gretchen: I've had people connect us, but I honestly never spent a lot of time listening to her and studying her.

Songfacts: I don't know how much you need to learn from her and from those. But it's interesting.

Gretchen: It's all kind of like what's in our hearts, and I think what's wonderful and beautiful is that everyone can appreciate the other person. Even if you're not coming from the same place, or even if the effect is not the same, the end result is not the same, I think if it is on an honest thing, all of these different singers appreciate what the other ones are doing. I heard Dianne Reeves is coming, and our voices are very different. But we know each other and there's love there and respect.

And Lizz Wright, I mean, I love her, too. So it's also a sense of if it's soulful, and not even using this word in a black/white way or in a genre way.

Songfacts: I understand.

Gretchen: And that can be something really intimate, really small. It can be so soulful or huge. That's what it's about. Is it full of soul and you opening up.

Songfacts: I'm not asking you to sing louder. (Laughing.)

Gretchen: (Laughing.) No, no. I guess what I mean is the point I'm trying to make is that I love and appreciate that kind of way to use your voice, and if it was a natural thing and I thought that it sounded good, I would do it, too.

Songfacts: Gretchen Parlato sings James Brown's greatest hits?

Gretchen: Oh, man, that might be the next album. You never know.

Songfacts: Will you dance like James Brown?

Gretchen: Yeah. I mean, I'll take some lessons and do it. I'll study.

Songfacts: Do you dance?

Gretchen: I do. I mean, I do it just for my own enjoyment. I'm not a dancer. But one thing that's really helped, actually, is I've taken different dance classes from different parts of West Africa, and it's the same thing as like studying percussion from West Africa, studying dance. When you connect the music and the dance and the songs and the call and the response, all the different percussion, that's what roots and grounds you in any kind of music that you do, but especially whatever it is that you want to call that I do, all of that study has helped. When you're physically moving your body and learning these steps that are very rhythmic, there's a lot of counterpoint there, there's a lot of three against four and 6/8 - it's very mathematical and very rhythmic and musical. When you learn to physically move your body that way, your music comes deeper, too.

Songfacts: I had a voice teacher, she studied opera in Germany, and then went to Berkeley to study jazz. She wanted to figure how all these black people were so soulful and had such rhythm, so she went to a black church and saw the little girls. She says, "Well, of course, they have rhythm. They're moving their bodies." At the age of nothing. You can't lose the beat if you're using your body as a metronome.

Gretchen: That's true. Exactly. And in a sense, you could be a horrible dancer. But as long as you end up feeling it in your whole body, literally and physically from your toes to the tip of your head, the music and the rhythm is literally moving you. So that's been a beautiful thing that's really deeply rooted and very inspiring for me.

This interview took place in August, 2011. It was published July 5, 2013. Get more Gretchen at gretchenparlato.com.
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