Parlato, Spalding truly on track to become legends
Special to the Journal Sentinel
Posted: Feb. 17, 2008

Lots of young musicians are hyped as "rising stars" by their publicity machinery, but few ever really reach the skies.

Listening to jazz vocalist Gretchen Parlato and jazz vocalist/bassist Esperanza Spalding in the Alverno Presents series at Alverno College on Saturday evening, it was clear that these two have the musical chops to become legends.

Parlato and guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke took the program's first half with intimate, completely engaging tunes.

Combining the sounds of his voice and guitar, Loueke sets up a rhythmic/harmonic groove that's infused with flavors of his native West Africa. Both he and Parlato blend vocal lines with rhythmic tongue clicks and percussive vocal effects to create a tapestry of constantly changing sounds.

Every sound Parlato makes is part of the musical fabric, including audible, on-the-beat breaths that are similar to the dry swish of a brush on a drum.

They keep their sound-system volume low enough to pull the listeners into their performance rather than flinging music at them. The result is a performance that makes the audience seem to disappear as they perform, replaced by the illusion that they're playing a small club.

Parlato scats and sings lyrics with a feathery, breathy voice that is gentle, feminine and full of musical nuance and color. She handles flowing, simple melodies and complex, angular lines with equal ease.

Spalding is a different kind of performer altogether. Standing with her bass, she closes her eyes throughout each song, playing impossibly clean, facile bass lines while singing a from-the-heart style of scat. She tosses off wild vocal leaps, runs and arpeggios with the pitch-surety of a keyboard player.

Playing in hand-in-glove style with drummer Otis Brown and keyboardist Leonardo Genovese, Spalding brought her microphone level down several times, ensuring that her voice was part of the fabric of the music, not the focal point.

Playing and singing tunes such as Nina Simone's "Wild Is the Wind," the tune "Mela," which she and her band wrote, or a standard such as "Body and Soul," she creates an absolutely compelling, infectious musical energy.

The two women and their colleagues joined forces for a few delightful minutes at the end of the evening.