Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

November/December 2008: Ross Porter

Gretchen Parlato: The Sorceress

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I was surprised to see a lone mic stand and guitar on the stage at Joe’s Pub. Where were the drums, the piano, the saxophones? I was only in NYC for five days, and wanted to make sure I spent my nights wisely.

Wise is an understatement!

Gretchen Parlato’s performance that evening was one of the best shows I have ever seen—it opened my eyes to a lot of new possibilities. She and guitarist Lionel Loueke captured the audience with their first notes. The music was original, relaxing, refreshing, calm, unabrasive, exploratory, and highly communicative.

Every person in the room was glued to their chair, wide-eyed at the performance in front of them. Gretchen Parlato drew people in by singing quietly, using the dynamics of the lyrics, and improvising with sounds not often heard from a jazz singer. Singers who can actually sound like another instrument are few and far between. When Gretchen sang a bass line with Loueke, it was amazing!

At the time, swing was my thing, but the Brazilian-influenced jazz in this performance blew me out of the water! I was surprised to hear this new rhythmic feel without any drums, but the pair pulled it off without a hitch. And fortunately for me I discovered a Brazilian musician, Marco Castillo, right here in Winnipeg, soon after I returned from my trip. Now I have the opportunity to learn more about this music, and appreciate it even more when Gretchen comes this fall.

Rhythm played a huge part of the show. Lionel played on the body as well as the strings of his guitar, and Gretchen played some Brazilian percussion instruments. Both Gretchen and Lionel also make percussive sounds vocally—I remember thinking, I didn’t know you could do that! I was fascinated by all the sounds they made with only their voices. I tried some on my first duo gig, and it was very successful!

The most striking aspect of the performance, however, was the communication between the two musicians. They seemed to be connected in every way—anticipating and answering each other’s phrases, complementing each other, and just flowing seamlessly in the music. Their main purpose that night was to serve the music, and they did it so well. I could not look away from the stage, I was so transfixed by the magic happening there.

Gretchen Parlato has taken the jazz world by storm in a few short years. In 2003, she won a place in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, even though Wayne Shorter, Terence Blanchard, and Herbie Hancock were actually searching for a trumpet player. A year later she won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition. Her self-titled CD appeared in 2005, the same year she appeared on Blanchard’s Grammy-nominated Flow. She has recorded recently with Lionel Loueke, Esperanza Spalding, Kenny Barron, and a host of others, and has been named the Rising Star Female Vocalist three years in a row by Downbeat.

Herbie Hancock identifies her as “a singer with a deep, almost magical connection to the music.” Winnipeg has an amazing opportunity to catch that magic when she shares the stage with Lionel Loueke in the next Asper Jazz Performances concerts. They might change the way you think about jazz too!

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