Singer Finds the Essence Underneath The Words

By Ben Ratliff
New York Times
December 7, 2004

The wisdom afforded by dry pleasures always comes with limits. Gretchen Parlato, a young jazz singer with unusual subtlety, at first seems as though she's going to be a particularly good source of dry pleasure, pushing down her middle-range voice into a small stratum of her band's music. But then this becomes her stealth device, a kind of musical embedding: she enters the music, becoming part of the band, improvising in melody and rhythm, prying open sweet spots in the songs that have little do with their composition.

Ms. Parlato, from Los Angeles, has been working in New York for only about a year. In September she won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition; since then she has been playing more gigs in town with a number of different musicians, without exactly forming a regular working band. But it's evident that she's an extraordinary singer, even in circumstances that aren't battened-down. In her group on Saturday night at the Jazz Gallery was Daniel Kaufman on piano, Massimo Biolcati on bass and Daniel Freedman on drums; they were joined for some songs by the harmonica player Gregoire Maret, and in the second set by Lionel Loueke, the Benin-born acoustic guitarist who has been performing with her more and more, connecting his own unusual, highly rhythmic phrasing with hers.

You don't pay much attention to words during Ms. Parlato's performances: her attention to rhythm and dynamics, for now, is the thing. Most of Saturday's music was in another language, anyway: Brazilian standards by Jobim, Ary Barroso and Dorival Caymmi. Ms. Parlato isn't a native Portuguese speaker, but has learned how to sing remarkably clearly in that language, internalizing specifics of Brazilian rhythm. But even when she sang a song by Bjork ("Come to Me," rendered with a nearly chamber-music version of go-go funk rhythm) or Gershwin ("The Man I Love"), she wasn't there to reveal the meanings of words.

In "The Man I Love," she nearly disappeared, but then emerged with new force. For the first half of the song, she sang light, true notes, using a narrow, energetic vibrato only at the point of a phrase when her voice had just dipped below the clearly audible level, making you wonder what you'd just heard. Mr. Maret took over for a solo through several choruses, pushing his ideas across bar lines and growing nearly ecstatic as he does in almost every improvisation; Ms. Parlato followed, bringing improvised, scat-sung melody out in strong waves.