Women of Jazz

By Jim Cryns

There's been a lot of talk and a popular novel about queen bees and wannabes. Rest assured, Alverno College brings you two queen bees— premiere jazz performers, musicians, and vocalists — in Gretchen Parlato and Esperanza Spalding. The pair will perform at Alverno's Pitman Theatre on February 16, 2008.

David Ravel, director of Alverno Presents, was introduced to Gretchen Parlato's talent through a friend. "Gretchen is managed by someone I've worked with for years," Ravel explains. "I was at a booking conference in New York. She was onstage and blew us away." Ravel recalls that Parlato, who won the 2004 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition, had a voice like whipped cream.

And then there's Esperanza Spalding, widely hailed as a child prodigy on the double bass, who is now one of the youngest teachers at Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music. "I don't want to beat around the bush," Spalding says. "It wasn't just musical talent, they wanted someone who had the ability to teach. I also think they wanted someone to teach as her career was growing. At least that's the way I sold it to them," she laughs.

"The first time I saw Gretchen perform live was in New York. She was freaking me out," remembers Spalding, an incredible talent in her own right, who is currently touring with Parlato. "Here was this skinny little white girl putting out this wonderful music," she jokes. "I was covered in goose bumps."

Ravel says when he first heard Parlato, who's now just 31 years old, perform "Chega de Saudade," he was speechless. "It's a classic, one of the great songs," Ravel notes. "An amateur can't touch it and a lot of professional musicians have trouble with that song."

"I'm grateful and thankful when people give me compliments like that," Parlato responds. "It makes me realize I'm doing the right thing. It helps me understand the hard work, emotion, the passion is paying off."

On their current tour, Spalding and Parlato each perform one set on their own and then join forces in the last portion of the show for a pull-out-all-the stops jam. Each of the women will be backed by their own band during their part of the show and then all of the musicians will gather together for the final set.

Parlato describes how she and Spalding first got together to discuss the tour. The planning of the musical arrangements in the show was kind of a girls casual get together, more like a pajama party than a musical meeting. "Esperanza and I met at her apartment in New Jersey and kicked around some ideas," Parlato says. "We knew we'd collaborate together and use our voices collectively and get to the core of the music. We created a few arrangements, but it's still a work in progress."

According to Parlato, Spalding is such a free spirit and feeding off her energy is easy. "I love people who bring out the crazy side of me," Parlato shares. "I reserve it for certain moments. Esperanza seems like a very balanced person. She's like a little firecracker and we've become great buddies. She's fun to hang out with, and I think she's so talented." Parlato says Spalding's music is completely original, as is her voice. "I have all these great things to say about her, and she's just beginning," Parlato exclaims.

Ravel says he views pure female jazz vocalists as an endangered species. "In a pure jazz sense, I'd have to agree," Parlato says. "There are so many different styles of jazz today, much broader than 40 years ago. It doesn't have to be swing anymore to be popular."

"Yes, I think he's right," Spalding concurs. "If he means outstanding jazz vocalists, I agree because it's dangerously easy to make a reputation for yourself these days." Unfortunately, the reputation is not necessarily based on what you've accomplished musically. "People need product to push," Spalding says without malice. "Jazz vocalists have to be beautiful in pictures to sell the product. I've seen a lot of that. I think to be a good jazz singer, you have to do your research, spend time, cultivate knowledge. That's what's missing from a lot of singers today."

There are countless stories about the rigors of touring and life on the road, but for these two young performers, it's still enjoyable. "For me, it's really about getting a good balance between music, sleep, diet, exercise," Parlato offers. "I'm pretty close to being a vegan, so it's hard to keep that up on the road. I exercise, meditate, do yoga in my hotel room, gathering energy for the show."

Surrendering to the demands of the road, Spalding says she never stops honing her skills. "I'm kind of a workaholic," she reveals. "When I'm on tour, I don't stop practicing. You have to commit to it. It's kind of like being an on-call doctor."

Occasionally, two incredible talents find each other through their craft and become good friends. This appears to be the case with Parlato and Spalding.

And for Alverno's Ravel, there couldn't be a more fitting, or exciting, show. "We're about empowering women. Here are two young women who've had an amazing impact on jazz, true trailblazers."