Interview: Going Small with Jazz Singer Gretchen Parlato [Part 1]

by Brian Howe on April 9, 2013

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Gretchen Parlato

The inimitable Gretchen Parlato is among the most celebrated jazz singers of the new generation, with her 2011 album The Lost and Found smashing critics’ lists and sales charts alike. She also has deep roots in the old guard, planted during her formative years at the Monk Institute, and has performed with the likes of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter as well as Esperanza Spalding. Renowned for a singing style of exceptional subtlety threaded through with world music influences, Parlato has appeared on over 50 albums. As she prepares to bring her piano trio to Duke Performances for two nights at Motorco, April 12 and 13, we reached her by phone for this interview. Today in Part 1, we learn of Parlato’s vibrant family background and how her ethnomusicology studies affect her jazz.

The Thread: Your family has a rich and varied history in music. Could you tell us a bit about it?

GRETCHEN PARLATO: I feel very lucky to have been born into a very involved artistic family. Visual artists, musicians, actors—literally everybody in my extended family has something to do with some kind of art. It was very cool to learn, early on, how essential art is in our lives, and see it as a valid career.

What about the musicians specifically?

Both my parents were, actually. My father is more retired now, but he’s a bass player. My mother is a visual artist and web designer, but she also plays piano and violin. My father’s father was a singer and a trumpet player, and my mother’s father was a recording engineer. My mother’s mother had a radio show in the 40’s, so she was in the entertainment industry.

Is jazz in that family matrix or did you find it yourself?

My father played other kinds of music as well, but he was a jazz musician. And his father sang and played trumpet on The Lawrence Welk Show. We also discovered that he was a background singer on some Sam Cooke tracks. I think on “You Send Me,” you can hear him singing the tenor part in the background singers. Popular music of the day included jazz, and my family listened to jazz all the time. My grandmother always played Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson and Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, so jazz became a very familiar sound before I even knew what it really was.

And you went to study jazz, but also ethnomusicology—how did the latter come into the picture?

I went to an arts high school before UCLA, and the ethnomusicology department had some students come in from the gamelan ensemble. They performed for us and I was so taken aback, so interested that it was possible to study music from all over the world, even things I’d never heard of. When I attended UCLA there wasn’t even a jazz studies program yet. After my first two years, Kenny Burrell started the jazz department, so thankfully I could kind of specialize in jazz studies within the ethno major. But the first thought was just to study music I’d never heard before, and it definitely had a big impact on opening up my mind to the different sounds and textures I try to incorporate.

Are there any explicit ways listeners might hear your ethnomusicology training in your jazz?

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Gretchen Parlato

There’s a lot of Brazilian music study I did on my own, even as a teenager, before continuing that study at UCLA. Also West African music; there was an ensemble from Ghana I was in that was very influential and inspiring. So I think those two musics are the biggest influences, where I keep finding musicians to collaborate with.

Then you went on to the Monk Institute and won the Monk Competition, got hooked in with a lot of great older jazz musicians—but you’ve also worked a lot with the new generation. Are there any highlights for you among the fifty-odd albums you’ve sung on?

It’s even hard to pick one, which is cool when you list it out that way. The biggest thing is that it’s really humbling and exciting to have been—not really on purpose—a part of this respectful, supportive scene of musicians. Everyone’s doing their own thing and breaking the rules, but not even with that intention. The intention is to be honest and follow their own heart in the music. Just being grateful to be a part of that is the thing to come to mind.

Do you ever feel there’s any bridge-building to be done between the old and new generations?

The greatest part of what we all do is that there’s room for any kind of thinker. I’m definitely not the kind of artist who’s trying to make a direct statement and get people to hear things my way. It’s more like, “This is what I have to offer,” for those who appreciate it.

About your singing style, is it fair to say that your version of going big is going small?

[Laughs] I haven’t heard it exactly like that. I like it.

That was my synthesis to avoid the usual “breathy” or “whispery.”

That’s a nice way to put it, because it allows you to kind of redefine what we think of as big and small, good and bad, weak and strong. It’s like my favorite phrase—something being “deceptively simple,” with a quiet intensity or something like that. That’s just as powerful as something more in your face and obvious. I like subtlety and fragility and detail.

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