Vocals, bass collide in powerful concert

By TIM BROUK, Journal and Courier
Oct 14, 2007

Two of the brightest, young female talents in the jazz scene owe their musical prowess from the ultimate source -- their mothers.

Vocalist Gretchen Parlato and upright bassist Esperanza Spalding will perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Purdue University's Loeb Playhouse inside Stewart Center.

When she was 13, Parlato, who would earn No. 3 on the Rising Star Female Vocalist list in the 2007 Downbeat Critics' Poll, was digging through her mother's old records before stumbling upon Stan Getz, Antonio Carlos Jobim and other bossa nova artists. Already possessing a love for singing, Parlato found the rhythmic Brazilian music a perfect match for her voice. She stuck with the style, learned Portuguese and has found a niche in the jazz world 15 years later.

Spalding, 22, grew up a music prodigy in Portland, Ore., thanks to her single mother's support.

"She believes in people doing music," said Spalding from her home in Jersey City, N.J. "She let me drop out of high school to follow music. She believed in me 100 percent."

Spalding, who turns 23 on Thursday, will perform with drummer Rochelle Lyndon and pianist Leonardo Genovese. Parlato will be accompanied by guitarist Mike Moreno. The women will play a few tunes together, too.

Spalding will be performing new music from an album she plans on recording in December. This new music is not your average jazz.

"It has more groove and more structure. It has some funk underlying. I don't know how to explain it, but it's good," Spalding laughed.

It wasn't until high school that Spalding touched a bass. Once she got over the blisters on her fingers, she began to excel at the instrument, so much that she received a scholarship to the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston.

After graduating in three years, Spalding became the youngest teacher in the school's history at age 21. Over the years, Berklee has counted Danilo Perez, Diana Krall, Branford Marsalis and Melissa Etheridge as just some of the college's famous graduates.

"I've learned a lot," said Spalding of her year as a music professor. "You expose your own weaknesses and emotional weaknesses. It's a great opportunity to overcome them. I enjoy watching the students get certain things that I got when I was a student."

Spalding sings while playing bass. She said she practices on her vocals profusely and acknowledged the challenge of singing and playing bass at the same time. To get around this, she concentrates on the root notes and vocal melody, and it eventually becomes easy for her.

Singing has been a natural part of Parlato's life. She said she started learning to sing while she was learning to talk.

While considered a jazz singer, she has collaborated with DJs, hip-hop artists and rock bands. But jazz is where she has gained the most ground. Parlato has shared the stage and received rave reviews from the likes of Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock.

Shorter said "There's no one like Gretchen out there."

"It's such a humbling feeling," said Parlato, 31, from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y. "I get to meet them and sing with them, and I'm considered a part of their musical family. It's an honor that they have given me such great praise."

Parlato's 2005 self-titled release made waves. Most of the disc is original compositions with a few new takes on other artists' songs, including Bjork's "Come to Me." Parlato said she kept the eccentric electro pop singer's bass line but changed the groove. Parlato admitted to being a huge Bjork fan and really gravitated towards the lyrics in "Come to Me."

"Lyrics are important and songs have to have a story to tell for me to sing it," Parlato said.

For her own work, Parlato sings in Portuguese and English. Many new fans ask her where in Brazil she is from. She bashfully has to tell them she was born in Los Angeles and her last name is of Italian heritage.

Parlato is excited to perform with Spalding. Both musicians expect to collaborate again after the tour.

"It's nice to work with another woman in jazz who has a unique sound and voice," Parlato said.