New York Times
Music Review | Gretchen Parlato

Handling Sneaky Rhythms
as Singer or Bandleader

June 7, 2009



Photo by Richard Termine
for The New York Times

Gretchen Parlato
singing at the 55 Bar
with Marcus Gilmore on drums,
Alan Hampton on bass
and Dayna Stephens on tenor sax.

Gretchen Parlato became a presence in New York jazz five years ago, around the time she won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition. At the time she seemed to work best in collaboration: she played often with the guitarist Lionel Loueke in performances that nearly merged their sensibilities, and she turned up for a song on other people’s records — Terence Blanchard, Esperanza Spalding, Kenny Barron, Mr. Loueke. There was always some warm egolessness in her performances: for sure, she was singing for and with each band, making clear the notion of the voice as an instrument.

But really leading a band is a whole other refinement, and more recently she’s achieved it. At the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village, where she’s been singing almost weekly for several years, she led a band in an early show on Friday, singing newer things in her repertory. Some will be on her next album, “In a Dream,” coming out in August. Typically, she gave over about a quarter of her gig to someone else: Dayna Stephens, a resourceful young tenor saxophone player.

She sang a wordless melody in one of Mr. Stephens’s curious, sturdy tunes, “Wink Wink,” as well a worded one — her own lyrics — in another, “The Lost and Found.” And Mr. Stephens played on all of her songs, along with Taylor Eigsti on electric piano, Alan Hampton on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums. This music was fairly intense in its complicated rhythm-section moves, impassioned in its soloing and all subordinate to her subtle projection.

As a performer she seems naturally restrained and controlled, more Ella Fitzgerald than Sarah Vaughan but more Rosa Passos than either. Brazilian music used to run strongly through her sets, but on Friday it existed only in traces, through Mr. Stephens’s Stan Getz-like saxophone obbligatos and Ms. Parlato’s airy tone, accurate pitch and judiciousness about using vibrato.

She sang Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly” and Bill Evans’s “Blue in Green,” all with her own Buddhist-like lyrics and in smart rearrangements. (“Blue in Green,” one of the most tranquil songs in jazz, became close to unrecognizable through altered tempo and harmony.)

But she closed with something more unusual: a version of “Weak,” the R&B hit from 1993 by the vocal group SWV. Her version of it — as well as her “Blue in Green” — was partly arranged by the pianist Robert Glasper, another musician in her circle. “Weak” wriggled around between a 12-beat rhythm and waltz time for the bridge (“my heart starts beating triple time”). With the rhythm section sneaking accents in between the beats and Mr. Gilmore playing microfills all over the place, it was the best kind of borrowing from hip-hop’s rhythmic flow. Ms. Parlato’s singing sailed over it, an example of benign control.