by Angèlika Beener
“There is a story to tell, now.”
Gretchen Parlato has returned, not only to the recording industry but to herself, with her new Brazilian-inspired project, Flor. Portuguese for “flower”, Flor is the artistic embodiment of the GRAMMY®-nominated singer’s deep dive into motherhood over the last six years, a metamorphic interval of space that allowed Parlato to discover the fullness of her essence through a new lens. In this season of epiphany, Parlato reaps her most personal harvest yet, which she refers to as, “a blossoming, an opening, an offering, a return.”
A gorgeous synthesis of original material, American popular music, European classical music, and Brazilian standards, Flor exemplifies the many ways in which motherhood has reconnected Parlato to her own inner child, revisiting the enchantment of falling in love with music for the first time, particularly the various Brazilian genres she became enamored with as a young teenager. “This is music that I’ve always wanted to honor,” says Parlato. “What I’m trying to find isn’t outside of myself. It’s not out of reach, it’s actually that internal revealing of what already exists.”
With Flor, Parlato debuts her quartet of the same name, featuring guitarist Marcel Camargo (Michael Bublé, Herb Alpert), originally from São Paulo, who also acts as musical director, and Léo Costa (Sergio Mendes, Bébel Gilberto), a native of Rio de Janeiro, who adds a broader palette with his distinctive percussion-drum hybrid. Perhaps the most unique and defining new texture for the ensemble comes from the role of bass taken on by cellist Artyom Manukyan (Melody Gardot, Kamasi Washington), from Yerevan, Armenia. Together, they exquisitely compliment the intensity and delicacies of Parlato’s signature voice. Based in Los Angeles, the band has toured Australia, New Zealand, and Mexico, as well as selected dates in the U.S.
Parlato has a proclivity for mining a wide range of genres for resonant material and curated a collection of music that epitomizes her most nostalgic origins. “The choice of material is reflective of what I grew up with. No matter the genre, my goal is to create continuity and a cohesive sound.” It’s a notion that’s easier said than done, yet Parlato has consistently rendered such a distinguished achievement over the course of her recording career, coalescing her vast musical palette in ways that are imaginative and inspired.
Brazilian music is a natural point of return for Parlato, who in many ways has been hinting at this affinity for quite some time. Her previous recordings include repertoire from some of Brazil’s most influential artists, such as Djavan and Bossa Nova architects Antônio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto; Gilberto’s influence in particular on Flor cannot be understated. “Discovering João Gilberto at 13 years old was monumental for me. Hearing him validated my more intimate and minimal approach to singing. He sounded so seemingly simple and tangible, yet there was so much detail, precision, and purpose to his vocal and guitar phrasing. Masterful, he was king!” More subtle yet no less influential is the infusion of West African cultures into the sounds of Brazil, illustrated in her previous collaborations with Beninese guitarist-vocalist Lionel Loueke.
“É Preciso Perdoar” — the album’s opener, written by Carlos Coqueijo and Alcyvando Luz, and popularized by João Gilberto in 1973 via his landmark self-titled LP — is a mystical, dreamy take on the renowned classic. Parlato contributes English lyrics, which underscore the theme surrounding loss and allowing oneself to sit with the unresolved feeling, transforming it into acceptance and forgiveness, giving the song a more melancholic feel than most other versions. Her words floating atop Costa’s slow, hypnotic groove, Camargo’s entrancing guitar, and Manukyan’s almost weeping cello, set a stunning precedent of palpable emotional depth.
“Sweet Love”, the 1986 classic from luminary vocal titan Anita Baker (written by Baker, Gary Bias, and Louis A. Johnson) is the latest in the canon of R&B that Parlato has been drawn to refashion. As an artist who has previously covered material from black R&B songstresses whose artistic contributions are foundational and invaluable to modern R&B music and beyond, Parlato seeks to find her own voice, reconstructing the song with what’s found. “No one needs an imitation of something that’s already great,” says Parlato, who struck gold with her rework of the 1992 B. A. Morgan hit, “Weak”, from celebrated R&B trio SWV, and followed up with the Lauryn Hill-penned “All That I Can Say” from hip hop-soul queen Mary J. Blige. With “Sweet Love” — which features special guest Gerald Clayton on Fender Rhodes, who brilliantly interweaves a driving 5/4 groove — Parlato’s vocal interpretation is urgent in its sensuality, and further evidences her aptitude for compelling experimentation.
Fans will delight in Parlato’s recording of “Magnus”, a favorite which has been performed globally over the last several years by herself and covered by other vocalists like Vuyo Sotashe, who helped to popularize the tune in his native South Africa, and a Carnegie Hall performance featuring Lionel Loueke, singer-songwriter Becca Stevens and the Malawi Children’s Chorus. Written and titled for Parlato’s best friend’s son, heard prominently on the recording, Parlato builds around the infectiously joyful chorus which Magnus composed at just four years old. Her equally catching bass line (in 13/8 time signature) and the most endearing of lyrics emphasize the intention of highlighting motherhood, through the honoring of family.
“Wonderful”, which features Clayton and innovative drummer Mark Guiliana, further illustrates Parlato’s discovery of her own maternal wisdom as a songwriter. With affirmation, lessons, and profundity, “Wonderful” is a love letter to her and husband, Mark Guiliana’s son — and all children — that implores us all to lean into the full extent of our virtue. “May every day remind you of your possibilities / and every night bring gratitude for what has come to be,” Parlato urges in her lyrics.
Perhaps Parlato’s most vulnerable piece, “What Does a Lion Say”, written by bassist Chris Morrissey, represents the soul of what Parlato has become. Channeling her earliest years of motherhood into art, with lyrics laden with precious relatability and a spellbinding performance, it is easily poised to become a classic in the realm of lullabies.
“Roy Allan” is a moving cover tribute to late trumpet great Roy Hargrove, whose song, named for his father, has become a modern American standard in recent times. For the occasion, Parlato invited iconic Brazilian jazz-fusion drummer-percussionist Airto Moreira to shepherd the honoring of Hargrove through a celebratory samba accompanied by chorus of voices that lifts the magnificent legacy of one of the most paramount and essential musicians of the last three decades.
Parlato transports listeners to her earliest indoctrinations of choral singing with a vocal unveiling of sorts on Pixinguinha’s “Rosa” and “Bach Cello Suite No. 1 [V. Menuett]”, utilizing her voice in ways she confesses she previously hasn’t on record. Taking herself back to her childhood, singing along with singers like Julie Andrews and finding great inspiration in the stylistic approach of ingenious vocalist Bobby McFerrin, Parlato sings both pieces with utter purity and a deliberately unaffecting technique. She further honed this style while at The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance (now known as The Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz Performance), where blending with various horns and reeds allowed her to experiment with her sound. Parlato’s full, rounded, straight-toned performances paired with Manukyan’s innovative cello brilliantly honoring the intricacies of Bach’s instrumentation is a remarkable revelation.
Parlato closes the album with a soul-stirring remake of late rock legend David Bowie’s “No Plan”, from his posthumously released EP of the same name. The arrangement, including a mesmerizing guitar vamp by Camargo, is a true highlight at the album’s culmination. The song acts as a continuous connective thread, with Bowie representing Parlato’s childhood musical influences, and Guiliana’s return as guest, an honoring of his role in Bowie’s last and final recorded work. Parlato’s haunting rendition draws attention to the inevitability of our collective mortality, but somehow also inspires the need to live our lives to the fullest in the now. An achievement of conveying such divine duality perhaps birthed through now seeing the world through the eyes of a mother.
Featured on over 85 albums, and four as a leader, Gretchen received a GRAMMY® Award nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album, and a coveted 4.5 star review from DownBeat, for Live in NYC (2013), which also reached No.1 on the iTunes Best Music Video list. The Lost and Found (2011) received more than 30 national and international awards, including the DownBeat Jazz Critics Poll No.1 Vocal Album of 2011, and iTunes Vocal Jazz Album of the Year. Her sophomore release, In A Dream (2009), was JazzTimes Critics’ Poll Vocal Album of 2009 and hailed by Billboard as “the most alluring jazz vocal album of 2009.” It all began with her self-titled debut, Gretchen Parlato, recorded shortly after winning the 2004 Thelonious Monk International Award for Jazz Vocals.
“This project is a reflection of a time of putting myself aside and being completely present as a mom,” says Parlato. “A role that’s so giving and selfless, and is a complete shift of focus. I’m finally able to find the balance between artistic creativity and nurturing motherhood. My purpose has both a higher and deeper meaning. There is a story to tell, now…of who I am in this role, and how that is reflected in the music.”