Gretchen Parlato: Stay In The Moment

Originally published on May 1, 2011 1:14 pm

Gretchen Parlato has been called the most important jazz singer since Cassandra Wilson, and her delicate vocals won over the judges at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 2004. Since then, Parlato has appeared on more than 50 recordings, and continues to build a following with tours throughout the U.S. and overseas. Her third album, The Lost and Found, was recently released.

The record includes original material, jazz standards and some new pop standards like Simply Red's "Holding Back the Years" and Mary J. Blige's "All That I Can Say." But the common thread throughout the album is Parlato's distinctive vocal style. Sometimes described as the "anti-Celine Dion," Parlato is neither a belter nor a torch singer. Her vocals are breathy and intimate, but there's a deliberate style and effort behind them.

"I'm glad you said breathy," Parlato tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen. "Whisper has come up a lot. There's an air, like you said — a breath around notes. To me, whispering means there's no tone, there's no sound, there's no placement. With what I'm doing, there's air, but I'm really kind of fascinated with tone and placement and resonance."

Parlato says she experimented with a few different vocal styles before finding the one that fit her own voice best.

"It's understated. It's quiet. If I could sing like a Chaka Khan, an Aretha, a Kim Burrell, if I could do all these amazing runs and belt it out, I would," she says. "I've attempted that, and it's not something anyone would want to hear."

Besides her work as a performer, Parlato is also in demand as a vocal coach. She says that in her teaching, she tries to tap into to the potential of the human voice "to transform ourselves and our world." That means focusing on staying in the moment.

"You want to have a feeling when you sing that you just love singing; you love the feeling of singing, and you love this feeling of this voice coming out of your body into this world," she says. "It's about really getting that most beautiful, pure, centered tone, thinking about the story of each song and the lyrics, and connecting your own life to that story."

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Gretchen Parlato has been called the most important jazz singer since Cassandra Wilson.

(Soundbite of song "Alo, Alo")

HANSEN: She won the judges over to her delicate, breathy vocals at the Thelonious Monk competition in 2004. Since then, Parlato has appeared on more than 50 recordings and continues to build a following with tours throughout the United States and overseas. She's also in demand as a teacher of vocal technique.

Gretchen Parlato's third album was recently released. It's called "The Lost and Found."

(Soundbite of song "Alo, Alo")

Ms. GRETCHEN PARLATO (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

HANSEN: Gretchen Parlato joins us from NPR's New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

Ms. PARLATO: Thank you so much for having me.

HANSEN: What do you think it means to work as a jazz singer in 2011?

Ms. PARLATO: That's a good question. Well, I think what's really great about jazz now is that that term is so broad. You know, the definition of what jazz is and what it could be is very open. So, you know, I can incorporate all kinds of music and styles and different genres into what I do, including original music as well and it can, you know, still be considered jazz.

HANSEN: Your dad played bass for Frank Zappa?

Ms. PARLATO: He did.

HANSEN: Did he play those records for you?

Ms. PARLATO: Yeah. It's really cool, you know, thinking back and growing up hearing that kind of music and having it, you know, just really be thought of as just - as a vital part of our life. You know, so I'd heard that side of my father. He was also a jazz musician, so I'd hear, you know, go to gigs and hear him practicing. And, you know, on my mother's side, her father was a recording engineer and he recorded the Beatles and Ella and Louie. So, there's a lot of history, you know, of music.

HANSEN: And music that doesn't get shuttled into just one kind of category either.

Ms. PARLATO: That's true, yeah.

(Soundbite of song, "All That I Can Say")

HANSEN: There are original songs on this album. There are also some covers. You cover Simply Red's "Holding Back the Years" and Mary J. Blige, "All That I Can Say," which was written by Lauryn Hill of The Fugees.

(Soundbite of song, "All That I Can Say")

Ms. PARLATO: (Singing) Loving you is wonderful, something like a miracle. Rest assured I feel the same way you do. Needing you isn't hard. With you I can let down my guard. Stay secure, that's all I'm asking you...

HANSEN: Is a song like "All That I Can Say" a pop standard for you - like this is a song that I wanted to record - or is it a standard for the people who are going to listen to your music?

Ms. PARLATO: I think it's the first. It's one among many songs that I would consider, you know, new standards or pop standards, as you said. There's a lot of songs that I kind of have in my little vault that I think, oh, that would be really fun to sing; that would be great to cover. And you kind of treat it the same way that you would a jazz standard.

(Soundbite of song, "All That I Can Say")

Ms. PARLATO: (Singing) I wish that I could find a way to tell you how I felt that day, but I can't. All that I can say. All that I can say. All that I can say...

HANSEN: You know one recent article described you as the anti-Celine Dion?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARLATO: Yeah...

HANSEN: I mean, you're not a belter and you're not a torch singer. You do have a unique style, though. Is there a secret to it or how did it develop? Because, I mean, articles have said you whisper some of your songs. But it's not quite a whisper. It's breathy.

Ms. PARLATO: Thank you very much. I really like that you said that. Whisper has come up a lot. There's an air, like you said, there's a breath around notes. But, to me, whispering, there's no tone, there's no sound, there's no placement, you know. And so what I'm doing is there's air but there's, I'm really, really kind of fascinated with tone and placement and resonance. So, I would like to think that it's more - and I have been quoted now; there's an article that's called It's More than a Whisper. And it's funny 'cause I'm like I say that about myself, which to seems to, like, discredit it a little.

HANSEN: Do you think then your voice comes across as being more intimate, more personal?

Ms. PARLATO: Absolutely. I mean, that's the thing too. I'm not trying to backpedal and act like is definitely, you know, much quieter than Celine Dion. But definitely there's an intimacy there. It's understated, it's quiet. But, believe me, if I could sing, you know, like Chaka Khan and Aretha and Kim Burrell. You know, if I could do all these amazing runs and just belt out stuff, I really would. You know, I've attempted that and it's not anything anybody would want to hear.

HANSEN: I'm speaking with jazz singer Gretchen Parlato about her latest album, "The Lost and Found."

Let's talk about your reworking of some jazz classics. On this CD, you take on Wayne Shorter, "Juju" and Bill Evans, "Blue in Green." This sounds a lot like Stevie Wonder meets John Coltrane.

Ms. PARLATO: Oh, I like that.

HANSEN: Yeah, yeah.

(Soundbite of song, "Blue in Green")

Ms. PARLATO: (Singing) Green with envy, for another, fearing she may be the one to soar through life with you...

HANSEN: It's worth a mention that the jazz pianist Robert Glasper was the associate producer of this album. Yeah, I mean, jazz fans know him; hip-hop fans know him. What did you get from working with him?

Ms. PARLATO: He just knows my voice really well. He knows my music. He knows what I'm capable of. We made a joke, and I was like, you know, I think what makes our dynamic work is that somewhere in him is this '80s white valley girl, kind of. He's like, yeah, somewhere in you is this, like, tall black man. He's like, specifically from Africa.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARLATO: I think that it's a joke but there's some truth in that we like all kinds of music, you know. And, yeah, so "Blue in Green" is an arrangement that we did together. I'd come up with that bass line and the groove in seven-four time and then he helped me with the harmony and, you know, idea of going into six for a little bit. So, it kind of, you know, developed from there.

(Soundbite of song, "Blue in Green")

HANSEN: You teach. You teach music clinics, workshops. You teach interpretation, tone, rhythm, phrasing. But there's something else that you teach. It's about being in the moment, being vulnerable. And I want to quote from your website: "Tapping into our potential to transform ourselves and this world." Do you teach it like yoga or meditation?

Ms. PARLATO: Yeah. I mean, those - yoga and meditation are a big part of my life too, and I think it's very similar. Tierney Sutton, who's an amazing friend and kind of big sister and a past teacher of mine, is like, you know, we want to - as singers, in a very, very humble, non-ego selfless way, you want to have that feeling when you sing that you just love singing. You know, you love the feeling of singing, you love the feeling of this voice coming out of your body and into this world. I have complete, pure joy with what I do.

(Soundbite of song, "Still")

HANSEN: Gretchen Parlato. Her latest album is "The Lost and Found." It's on the Oblique Sound label and she joined us from NPR studios in New York. Thank you and much luck with it.

Ms. PARLATO: Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of song, "Still")

Ms. PARLATO: (Singing) Even if it makes me cry, I still love. Even if I don't why, I still love. Even when things fall apart, I still love. Even if you break my heart, I still love.

HANSEN: You can hear a song from "The Lost and Found" at

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.