Jazz Vocalist Gretchen Parlato Is Ready to Blossom Again

by Andrew Gilbert, KQED

In the decade following Gretchen Parlato’s triumph at the 2004 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Vocals Competition, she changed the texture of the New York scene.  

Although she only recorded a precious handful of albums under her own name, Parlato seemed to be everywhere. Her unmistakably lithe, silvery voice became one of the era’s defining sonic elements—no other jazz singer foregrounds their breath in quite the same way. Contributing to more than five dozen albums by a glittering constellation of composers, she found a multiplicity of aural avenues into an ensemble’s blend. 

In the 2000s, Gretchen Parlato changed the sound of jazz with her singular voice. After receding from the spotlight to focus on motherhood and teaching, she's back with a solo album and two Bay Area headlining shows. (Lauren Desberg) 

You can hear her on the recordings that made Esperanza Spalding a star (including 2010’s Chamber Music Society and 2012’s Radio Music Society). Veteran masters created imaginative settings for her sound, often on Brazilian-inflected material. (She sings on Terence Blanchard’s 2005 album Flow, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington’s 2011 The Mosaic Project and pianist Kenny Barron’s 2008 The Traveler.) Younger colleagues looked to her for inspiration. (Parlato appears on pianist Gerald Clayton’s 2013 Life Forum, vocalist Becca Stevens’ 2011 Weightless and tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III’s 2006 Casually Introducing Walter Smith III.) 

Simply put, everyone wanted some of Parlato’s mojo. 

After the birth of her and drummer Mark Guiliana’s son Marley in 2014, Parlato took herself out of heavy circulation, teaching at Manhattan School of Music and gigging a whole lot less. 

At the end of 2019 the family relocated to Los Angeles, where she grew up. And then, of course, every performing artist got an involuntary, unfunded sabbatical thanks to COVID-19. Once a regular presence in the Bay Area, Parlato was conspicuous by her absence. 

And now Parlato is back: Her first album in almost a decade, the 2021 Grammy-nominated Flor, marked a glorious return. This week, she plays her first Bay Area headlining shows in more than five years with a concert at San Francisco’s Black Cat on Wednesday, May 18, and another at Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center on Thursday, May 19. But she’s already reintroduced herself as an artist with a singular sound ready to tackle the most challenging settings. 

Parlato stepped into the SFJAZZ Collective last fall under the direction of saxophonist Chris Potter, sharing vocal duties with charismatic San Francisco soul singer Martin Luther McCoy. (She was called in as a last-minute replacement for Lizz Wright in the newly configured nonet.) In March, the group released a politically engaged album of original arrangements and compositions, New Works Reflecting the Moment, that includes Parlato’s song “All There Inside.” The Collective finishes the season with a European tour this summer, and after that Parlato said her future with the group is uncertain. 

“It was a great surprise to get that call a couple of weeks before they started,” says Parlato, 46. “The timing did make sense. It really helped push me back into working again, creating and playing. It was the first thing I had since COVID and it’s been a great few months.” 

She was back at the SFJAZZ Center again in March as the vocalist in Chris Potter’s ambitious orchestral song cycle Sing to Me. At that concert, a 19-piece ensemble played his sumptuous settings for poetry by Paul Laurence Dunbar, Sapho, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and 15th century Indian mystic Kabir. He wrote the music with Parlato’s voice in mind, and she delivered the sinuous melodies amid the thick harmonies and densely lapidary brass and woodwinds. 

“Chris is a genius and I loved my role,” she says. “I think he knew my voice could really shine. It was precise and contained in a way that other projects hadn’t touched.” 

For her Black Cat and Kuumbwa gigs, Parlato is playing with a stellar band featuring rising Richmond-raised drummer Malachi Whitson, bassist/producer Ben Williams (a fellow Monk Competition winner who recorded a live album at Black Cat last month), and pianist/keyboardist Taylor Eigsti, who won a Grammy Award last month for his album Tree Falls (which features Parlato on two tracks). 

Eigsti is an accompanist hailed by vocal legends such as mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade and Lisa Fischer, and he's worked closely with Parlato for nearly two decades. Describing the experience as formative, the Menlo Park-raised pianist says, “Gretchen is one of the best bandleaders I’ve ever known, and the majority of anything I know about bandleading I learned from watching her. Musically, she has the best time of anybody I’ve ever played with, and a really unique way of phrasing.” 

Parlato's latest album, Flor, is steeped in Brazilian influences. The project was built on a supple quartet led by São Paulo-born guitarist Marcel Camargo with Rio-reared percussionist/drummer Léo Costa. Rather than an anchoring bassist, the ensemble features Armenian cellist Artyom Manukyan as a textural and melodic foil for Parlato. (Mark Guiliana, Gerald Clayton and Brazilian percussion maestro Airto Moreira also make guest appearances.) 

While motherhood is often cast as a barren expanse for women artists—a book review of Julie Phillips’ The Baby On The Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, And The Mind-Baby Problem in last week’s Atlantic makes for depressing reading—Parlato embraced pregnancy and parenthood as a creative endeavor, with little doubt that the experience would feed her music. 

Her music has often flowed from the emotional passages of her life. “And Flor was a perfect platform to find music and write music and lyrics that reflected what it felt like to be a mom and a parent in general,” she says. “I’ve always found the easiest thing is find the honesty in my life and turn it into art and share it.” 

Which isn’t to say that the songs suddenly materialized. The music on Flor gestated for years. What’s most impressive is the way her bossa-nova-and-beyond palette manifests on a disparate program, including the Anita Baker hit  “Sweet Love,” Parlato’s original celebration of maternal insights, “Wonderful,” the lullaby “Magnus” and bassist Chris Morrissey’s incantatory “What Does a Lion Say.” Her garden flourishes, though the album closes with intimations of mortality on a stark, buzzy arrangement of David Bowie’s “No Plan,” the titular track from his posthumously released EP (that featured Mark Guiliana). 

“Her music is so personal,” Eigsti says. “It’s not surprising that becoming a parent has influenced her so deeply.” 

Driven by the internal impulse to create, Parlato lets the songs emerge when they were ready. “I hadn’t given myself any space, I was so focused on being a mother,” she says. “It took years to try to create again.” 

She says she has no regret about the timing of things. “The whole theme of Flor is a garden that’s dormant, that looks like nothing going on, then these amazing flowers sprout and grow and blossom.”