Jazzed up - Gretchen Parlato
Our Brisbane, by Justin Grey
30 Jan 2008

Hailed as a female Frank Sinatra and praised by jazz luminaries Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, New York-based jazz singer Gretchen Parlato has set the international scene alight since emerging at the beginning of this Century.

Parlato first rose to prominence when she broke with tradition by becoming the first vocalist to be accepted into the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance in her formative year of 2001.

“That was a great experience for me,” she reflects. “It was always an instrumental ensemble, so being the first singer was definitely a challenge. Back then, I didn’t think of it in the big picture of marking new territory and leading the way for other singers. That realisation came to me after I was finished.

“When I was there it was really just realising how to be a better musician – how to drop my own ego and not let it get in the way of me growing. When you come out of it you realise this was a heavy, heavy thing, and the greatest part is it makes you realise what you want and don’t want in music and even in life. The tools that they gave us are so valuable.”

Parlato’s hard yards at the institute clearly paid off when she won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition in 2004. She followed that success with the release of her self-titled debut album a year later, capturing on disc her unique, acclaimed fusion of Brazilian and African elements within a jazz framework.

“It’s really just a matter of what I lean towards as far as music that I love,” Parlato explains of her sound. “I love the sound of Brazilian music – the vocal quality, the beautiful melody, lyrics and rhythm. All of that was together in Brazilian music; I just fell in love with that sound.

“With African music, I was lucky to be in a lot of music and dance ensembles since I was a teenager. When you study African music and rhythms it really allows you to have a deep sense of groove and rhythm in any kind of music you play. I loved that aspect and wanted to somehow incorporate that into what I do.

“I’m not Brazilian and I’m not African, so I knew I had to have my own sound. But if I could work with other people where that was part of what they had to offer, then collectively we could come up with some kind of unique sound and approach. That’s really the goal in any kind of art – to have your own unique vision and sound.”

Despite such seemingly disparate influences, the self-effacing Parlato says her sound isn’t forced, but actually comes together organically.

“It all goes together very nicely; it all just makes sense,” she continues. “To me, what I do has always been very pure, natural and simple in its approach. Sometimes you’re not even aware of the steps that you’re making, but it’s a wonderful thing that, in turn, by just expressing what I love myself, other people have loved it too.

“This is what I love and I’m gonna share this, and hopefully people will react in some way and feel something from it.”