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Gretchen Parlato is a deceptively strong jazz singer who, on first listen, might appear to have a weak voice. Trust your ears; she isn't Ella, or Sarah, or Betty. But listen closely, because stylistically, she isn't trying to be.
What Parlato does have in common with the aforementioned greats is that slippery, you-know-it-when-you-hear-it quality we often abbreviate as "musicality." She has a great sense for what she can do, and for what types of arrangements work around those gifts. (Think Miles Davis on this point.) She seems to innately understand how to fit into a band without hogging the spotlight, which is one of the reasons she's one of the few vocalists to get work as a sideperson. And as for sound of her voice itself: Well, that's awfully appealing, too, in its soft insistence, its breathy and often wordless timbre, its teardrop inflections.
The Lost And Found is Parlato's third album. Her second, In A Dream, launched dozens of "A Different Type Of Jazz Singer"-styled profiles and reviews. (In actuality, the tenets of her general aesthetic are becoming more and more common these days.) This album clearly builds on the highlights of its antecedent; there are jazz classics dramatically rescored (Wayne Shorter's "Juju," Bill Evans' "Blue In Green"), Brazilian tinges ("Alô, Alô"), light post-production tricks (even a remix of "In A Dream"). There are other strands in here too, in originals, arrangements of and lyrics over tunes by contemporaries, and even a singer-songwriterly, acoustic guitar-y duet with Alan Hampton — her usual touring bassist, here just a special guest on "Still."
What comes through most clearly, though, is the R&B factor. The record is littered with moments which feel like they've been filtered through the last 30-odd years in black popular music: beats, production touches, even covers of Mary J. Blige ("All That I Can Say," written by Lauryn Hill) and blue-eyed soul band Simply Red ("Holding Back The Years"). For this you can give at least partial credit to associate producer Robert Glasper, a jazz pianist attuned to hip-hop and modern R&B because, um, he often makes both.
Certainly, and thankfully, Parlato's isn't the only vision of what jazz singing is in 2011. But it does result in music which feels firmly grasped, creative, labored-over, of the moment, realized. The Lost And Found is intelligently done, and you can sing along to it, too. It is, in a word, strong.
The Lost And Found will stream here in its entirety leading up to its release on April 5. Please leave your thoughts on the album in the comments section below. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.