|Open dates for the first months of 2006 were scant in the gig book of singer Gretchen Parlato, a San Fernando Valley native who moved to New York in 2003. Over a fortnight in January, for example, Parlato performed a string of one-nighters at the Jazz Standard, 55 Bar, La Lanterna and Zinc Bar, sandwiching them around a week of after-hours at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola. A month later, on a frigid February Sunday, Parlato and her trio played a Blue Note brunch to a packed house. She sang songs from her eponymous self-released debut CD with a light, elastic alto. Her rhythms were buoyant and percussive, her pitches precisely calibrated, her phrasing idiomatic and her spirit resolutely improvisational.
"In an inconspicuous way, Gretchen knows how to play the same instrument that Frank Sinatra played," reads Wayne Shorter's assessment on Parlato's web site. They first crossed paths in 2001, when Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Terence Blanchard judged Parlato's successful audition for a Thelonious Monk Institute Fellowship. Her imaginative inventions would earn the singer a career-launching first prize at the 2004 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition.
"They tested me," Parlato said about her famous early mentors. "Herbie said, 'Do the same thing, but I want the piano player to play really out, so I can see you follow what he's doing'; or, 'I want to see if you can lead him somewhere.' Then they asked about my goals. I still stand by my answer: to bridge the gap between instrumentalists and singers. Singers have words to tell the story and get the attention of the audience. Instrumentalists say, 'I'm trying to play as if I'm singing,' but we can use our voices as instruments as well. There was no horn player in our ensemble at the Monk Institute, so they had me sing the trumpet parts. I learned to blend my voice with the trombone and tenor saxophone.
The daughter of Dave Parlato, who played bass with Don Ellis, Frank Zappa and Gabor Szabo, Parlato heard jazz "forever without realizing what it was." At 15, she discovered her mother's copy of Getz-Gilberto, mimicked the Portuguese lyrics and Stan Getz's solo to "Desafinado," and found her voice.
"Even as a kid listening to pop music, I always sang all the background parts and sounds," she said. "I knew I could use this voice in many ways besides just singing the melody and then letting the band take over. Tierney Sutton taught me about honesty, to sing standards in a way that's natural to you. I also liked the challenge of improvisation, that you have these rules and then can stretch through them."