By Andrew Gilbert
Gretchen Parlato has been tested by fire, and she's not only survived, she's thrived, emerging from the flames as one of the most creative and promising jazz singers younger than 30.
Her first nerve-jangling trial took place in 2001, when she auditioned for the Thelonious Monk Institute, an intensive two-year jazz studies program associated with the University of Southern California and run by trumpeter-composer Terence Blanchard.
She chose to sing the standard “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and Charlie Parker's bebop theme “Quasimodo,” which is based on the chord changes of “Embraceable You.” The illustrious panel was impressed enough to select Parlato as the Monk Institute's first vocalist. “She takes a lot of chances with her understated style, and it works,” Hancock has said. “Every note is expressive, powerful, and pretty.”
In 2004, the Los Angeles-raised Parlato triumphed in a more public setting, when she won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition, the contest that served as a launching pad for artists such as tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Jacky Terrasson and singer Jane Monheit. This time, the judges included Flora Purim and Jimmy Scott.
Parlato used the bulk of the $20,000 Monk Competition award to record her first album, a self-named session featuring Loueke, pianist Aaron Parks, Monk Institute bassist Massimo Biolcati and Brazilian percussionist Café. The album's eight tracks display both her small, flexible, exquisite voice, and her range of musical interests. She sings “Skylark” with total concentration and turns Björk's “Come to Me” into a delicately textured jazz vehicle. Parlato contributes original lyrics to a medley of Wayne Shorter's “Juju” and “Footprints” and sings a pair of Antonio Carlos Jobim classics in beautifully rendered Portuguese.
She fell under the sway of bossa nova patriarch Joao Gilberto while attending the Los Angeles High School for the Performing Arts, and continued to delve into Brazilian music during her years in UCLA's ethnomusicology program.
Her passion for Brazilian music is one point of connection with Loueke, a brilliant musician from Benin who grew up hearing samba and Brazilian-inflected Portuguese. He was still at the Monk Institute when Blanchard recruited him for his band, and he spent the summer touring with Hancock.
“Gretchen is like my twin sister musically,” Loueke said after a performance with his trio at the Monterey Jazz Festival earlier this month. “It's almost like we're reading each other's minds. At the Monk Institute, we were playing every day, so we definitely developed a cohesion.”
During their years at the Monk Institute, Parlato and Loueke never performed duets; they collaborated as part of the program's ensemble. But they both moved to New York shortly after graduating, and have been working as a duo ever since. She sings throughout his gorgeous new album “Virgin Forest” (Obliqsound) and they've developed a repertoire of material built upon his intricate rhythms and vast sonic palette. At Monterey, his guitar took on the cadences of steel drums, balafon and kora, all within the same tune.
“Our repertoire consists of a lot of Lionel's original songs, which I sing in Foh, his native dialect,” Parlato said. “We do some Brazilian music as well, some standards and pieces by Duke Ellington and Bill Evans. More recently, I've added some things by Stevie Wonder and Björk, a mix of music that we're moved by. There's always some fresh arrangement. That's the way Lionel is, and the musical connection that we have.”
At that point the winner and runners-up, after going through this emotional pasta machine in front of television cameras with unfamiliar colleagues and high-ranking generals, were importuned to sing a song together. Competition is good for jazz, but the evening ended on an awkward note.