Gretchen Parlato – Straight From the Heart...
With Special Guest, Tierney Sutton
Artist Interview by: Gerard W. O'Brien
I was browsing at the web site for Steamers Café, looking for a good show for Friday night. I saw that Gretchen Parlato, the winner of the Thelonious Monk Vocal Competition, would be singing there, so I quickly ordered up two seats. Up to that point in time, I had never heard of Gretchen Parlato, but knowing that the awards are a very serious matter, I felt sure that this would be a great show.
As it turned out, my estimate of her talent paled in comparison to her performance. Her voice is ethereal, her stage presence fantastic, and Gerald Clayton, Marcel Camargo, Dan Lutz and Aaron Serfaty backed her.
During the intermission, I spoke with Tierney Sutton who drove all the way down from the San Fernando Valley to Fullerton for the show. She told me that she has known Gretchen since she was a student at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts; they are close friends. Tierney has acted as a mentor-teacher and friend of this accomplished singer. I am certainly looking forward to hearing more of Gretchen's music when she's in Southern California. Gretchen has also released a self-titled CD that is available on www.CDBaby.com.
JAZZREVIEW: Hello Gretchen. I saw you perform at Steamers’ Cafe in Fullerton. It was a very good performance in a very crowded club.
GRETCHEN PARLATO: It was surprisingly packed!
JAZZREVIEW: I had just interviewed Tierney Sutton and she was there.
GRETCHEN PARLATO: You interviewed her?
JAZZREVIEW: Yes, I did. She's the last musician I interviewed for JazzReview.com. I want to write an article on her for a small magazine that I publish.
GRETCHEN PARLATO: Okay, cool.
JAZZREVIEW: When I heard you sing I said to myself, "Wow, I have got to interview this singer."
GRETCHEN PARLATO: Cool, thank you.
JAZZREVIEW: I understand that you are initially a native Angelino.
GRETCHEN PARLATO: I am. I lived in the San Fernando Valley my entire life until two years ago when I moved to New York.
JAZZREVIEW: Where do you live in the City?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: I had been able to stay in the East Village for a couple of years. I just recently moved to Brooklyn.
JAZZREVIEW: Do you do much in terms of local clubs there?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: I’ve performed at the Blue Note, Jazz Standard, Jazz Gallery, Sweet Rhythm, 55 Bar, Zinc Bar, Fat Cat, Cornelia St. Cafe...I have a week’s run at Dizzy's at Jazz at Lincoln Center in January 2006.
JAZZREVIEW: How frequently are you performing?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: I perform a few times a week...depends on the month and what kind of venue it is. Maybe it's not necessarily my own gig, but I have also been hired by other musicians to be a part of their projects. So that's really been great.
JAZZREVIEW: Who has been hiring you?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: I sing in EJ Strickland's Group, Rodney Green's Band, another project with trombonist Dion Tucker, and another project with trumpeter Leron Thomas. I also have been hired to sing on studio albums of some incredible musicians: Terence Blanchard, Walter Smith III, Kendrick Scott, Patrick Cornelius, and a hip hop band in LA called “Self Scientific.” I sing in Lionel Loueke's band. He's a great musician (guitar player) and friend of mine. Do you know who is that is?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: He was in the Thelonious Monk Institute with me. He is from Benin, West Africa. He plays with Terrence Blanchard's band right now and he has toured with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. You can't miss him. He's just got an amazing, very unique, innovative sound.
JAZZREVIEW: When you sing in other bands are you still singing Brazilian?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: No, it's original music.
JAZZREVIEW: That’s neat.
GRETCHEN PARLATO: Yeah, so it's cool because I can be hired to sing music that is completely different from what I would do on my own. It's a different sound. It might be original music or more jazz thing. I sing sometimes with different artists that have an R & B/hip-hop thing going on and I will do what I do on top of that. It's different. This allows me to do other music that I am interested in.
JAZZREVIEW: In your bio it says you come from an artistic family. Who else are artists and what kind of art do they do?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: My father is David Parlato and he's a bass player. His father, Charlie Parlato, he's a trumpet player and singer and he used to play on the Lawrence Welk shows years and years ago. My uncle, Dennis Parlato, he is an actor. My mother, Judy frisk, is a web designer and also a studied and talented musician and visual artist. My sister, Heather, is a graphic designer. On my mother's side my grandfather was a recording engineer. He recorded The Beatles and Ella.
JAZZREVIEW: What was his name?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: Caleb Frisk. He had on old recording studio. My grandmother Marian, she used to have a radio show in the ‘40s. Everyone in my immediate family is an artist in some way. My passage into music was recognized and nurtured from a very early age, but I feel lucky to have that kind of basis. The Arts have always been just as important as any other aspect, you know.
JAZZREVIEW: I understand you went to the Los Angeles High School for the Arts?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: Yes. I went to LA County High School for the Arts and then from there I earned a B.A. in ethnomusicology in jazz studies at UCLA.
JAZZREVIEW: If you are not going to become a performer, what do you do with a degree in ethnomusicology?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: A lot of people become teachers, professors or writers.
JAZZREVIEW: Your biography also says that you like jazz and Brazilian music. When did you develop your attraction to Brazilian music?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: It was pretty early on in my life that I first was exposed to Brazilian music. I was about 13 or 14 just going through my mother's record collection and came across the classic Getz/Gilberto album with Jobim. I just put that on and immediately fell in love with it, with that sound. It was really from there I learned the entire album and learned the songs all by ear. I was just completely obsessed with that. So that started it. From there, I became interested in finding other Brazilian music.
One of my best friends Nicolau Vergueiro is Brazilian and his father, Guilherme is a pianist, they they had a whole wealth of music and knowledge for me. So it just developed from there. I was drawn to it so much. It's just exquisite music. It's beautiful to me. And all the vocal quality and sound and tone seemed like a very natural way that I could use my voice; I remember thinking that, when you come to the acceptance of what your voice sounds like and what you are able to do with it. With Brazilian music it is very much about tone and simplicity, phrasing and having a rhythmic aspect to what you do. It is such an intimate sound.
JAZZREVIEW: Was it Wayne Shorter who said you use your voice like Frank Sinatra?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: He did say that.
JAZZREVIEW: Coming from a musician like that, comparing you to a musician like Frank Sinatra, that could make your head get very, very big. How do you feel about that?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: Well, I really am a humble and modest person. Absolutely, I have accepted where I am at and I know what I am capable of. I'm always challenged to keep going, but I think, luckily, I have good parents and was taught to be a pretty grounded person. So I really don't believe that I will ever get a big head about anything. I am just lucky to be an artist. Iit's a very humbling thing for me to be a singer and to even have Herbie and Wayne like what I do and know who I am. I mean, it's definitely an amazing thing for them to give me such praise, I am just -- I am absolutely humbled. Those are giant legends of jazz and it touches me, it means so much to me. So yeah, it's pretty amazing.
JAZZREVIEW: You have had the opportunity to play in Italy several times.
GRETCHEN PARLATO: Yes, when I was in the Thelonious Monk Institute we traveled quite a bit and we were able to sing at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia over the summer. That was really a great experience, have you been there?
JAZZREVIEW: I have been to Rome. You were up north in one of the big Renaissance centers.
GRETCHEN PARLATO: They kind of take over this tiny little town and turn it into a jazz festival for some weeks at a time. It's great because it's such a small space, everybody that's playing in the festival and attending the festival are all within several feet of you so you just walk around and you just end up seeing everyone. There is Wayne walking around and there is Louis Nash, there is a Claudia Acuna, Jane Monheit, whoever was there. You were able to really talk to them and hang.
I hadn't moved to New York yet, so when I did that festival it was still pretty cool for me to see how musicians are able to relate to each other. That's a very New York thing, you probably know. Musicians are very approachable in New York, I think, because of the same kind of thing, it's a small city and you end up running into people either on the street or in a club and can you hang with them and talk to them after the show and get to know the musicians on a human level. So that gave me a little taste. I remember knowing at that point that I really needed to move to New York and know what that felt like, to live in that kind of community.
JAZZREVIEW: So you did this in 2002?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: Umbria, yes.
JAZZREVIEW: When you played with Herbie Hancock for the UNESCO Concert
that was also in 2002?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: I believe that was 2003.
JAZZREVIEW: When you were in Paris where did you stay?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: We stayed right near the Eiffel Tower.
JAZZREVIEW: So were you on the Left Bank.
GRETCHEN PARLATO: Yes. I love Paris.
JAZZREVIEW: Where are you going to be playing in the near future?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: I have many performances coming up in January--a week run at Dizzy's, The Jazz Standard, and 55 Bar during the week of IAJE.
JAZZREVIEW: Do you have any festivals coming up?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: I'll be singing at the Grand Teton Music Festival in February. I have a performance at the Kennedy Center in March.
JAZZREVIEW: Do you teach?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: I teach private lessons. I teach in-group settings as well, workshops and master classes. I love teaching, because I learn just as much from students. We are all students. I feel like a student, too. If I weren’t a singer, I would definitely be a teacher.
JAZZREVIEW: When I was talking with Tierney, she said that she's been playing with the same band for 12 years. That last Telarc CD “I’m with the Band,” it's pretty flawless.
GRETCHEN PARLATO: It's great. I was there for that live show, I know, she's incredible.
JAZZREVIEW: Are you developing that kind of band? Are there people who you are playing with all the time?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: There are. I love playing with Lionel Loueke, Aaron Parks, Kendrick Scott. I adore them, but they are all very busy with their other projects too. But I feel as though they really understand my vision.
JAZZREVIEW: I have to ask you, a few nights ago I made my first visit to the Hollywood Bowl as a guest of KKJZ and I saw the Rippingtons and Cassandra Wilson.
GRETCHEN PARLATO: Oh, cool.
JAZZREVIEW: And Al Jarreau.
GRETCHEN PARLATO: I performed there last Wednesday, the17th of August.
JAZZREVIEW: So what's that like?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: It really was kind of like a dream come true in a certain sense. Coming from LA I have been going to the Hollywood Bowl since I was a little kid and it's a legendary place. It was really humbling experience for me. I was absolutely thrilled to be there and be a part of the celebration of Jobim. Such legendary artists were there--Oscar Castro-Neves, Gal Costa, Dianne Reeves, Ivan Lins. I say I am humbled because I was the newcomer of the bunch. I was very warmly received. It was an honor.
JAZZREVIEW: All right. Now, I think I have covered everything I wanted to ask you. Is there anything else that you think is really important that people should know about what you are doing with your music?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: I feel really lucky to have such a great education in music. I think that all of the studies, experiences and opportunities that I have had helped to shape my musical vision. I've always thought of my voice as an instrument and whether it could be used in the more traditional role with lyrics and the melody or maybe part of a horn section or background. I have always been exposed to music where voice was used in really different and unique ways, so it seems very natural for me to continue bridge the gap, so to speak, between singer and instrumentalist. So many people have done that before me. It's just an important thing as a singer to be educated so that you are speaking the same language as instrumentalists around you and just being humble and letting go of your ego and singing from your heart and not your head all the time.
Being in the Thelonious Monk Institute, especially [since]the Institute hadn't had a singer there before, so it really taught me a lot about holding my own with other instrumentalists. You definitely have to get all the theoretical and technical aspects together so that you are confident and respected. Basically it's really about respect between every musician.
JAZZREVIEW: How do you go about choosing your songs?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: I choose songs that speak to me or that I can speak through. I have to be connected to lyrics and songs that I choose to sing so that I can relate some aspect of my life to that and then that way the delivery is directly from me and from my heart and from my soul. That is something that sets singers apart from instrumentalists because we have lyrics and a story to tell and it's a beautiful thing to be able to reach people and touch them in that way.
On the other side of it I might choose songs that have a unique or challenging melody or harmony or even just a simply beautiful melody to it. It really goes hand in hand. In general, I am just trying to create music that makes the people feel something and moves them and touches them in some way and it has a core intellectual element, but then swirling around that is emotion and passion and at the same time it doesn't always have to be serious, but I try to bring a sense of humor and carefree spirit to what I do. I feel really lucky to be an artist.
We are all just sharing this gift that we were born with and spent years developing. At this point it's beyond anything else; it's beyond ego. It's very simple, just sharing the beauty, the things that I think are beautiful with other people and hoping that they can be in touch with that and understand that and love it just as much as I do.
JAZZREVIEW: Are you writing any of your own music?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: Yes, I'm working on that, both music and lyrics. In everything I do, whether it is original or standard songs, it's all genuine and all honest coming from me. I think that's a huge thing for any kind of an artist. When people can see that vulnerability in what you do, it's a beautiful thing. All kinds of artists, whether you are huge performer in a big show or whether it's just very intimate, as long as it's coming from the right place, I think that's what matters most.
JAZZREVIEW: In terms of being a lyricist, what's your background in lyrics, who do you look for inspiration?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: I am inspired by life and love--all things emotional, sensual, spiritual. . .things that make me feel something.
JAZZREVIEW: Is there anything else we need to touch on?
GRETCHEN PARLATO: I thought about some influences of mine as far as my approach.
JAZZREVIEW: Tell me.
GRETCHEN PARLATO: Definitely João Gilberto for his intimacy and his tone of his voice is just genius in his phrasing and in his guitar voicing. And in relation to that Miles Davis, absolutely is a huge influence. I think his use of space and the simplicity and what he played was really powerful so that every single note means something and his playing was very genuine and honest and hip, but also could be really subtle and understated. I heard those two artists pretty early on in my life and it just spoke -- they spoke to me in that way where they just showed, I mean someone like Chet Baker, too, kind of definitely stems from where Miles was coming from, but some artists that can really tell
their story and it's really -- in one word it's just simple. It doesn't have to be over the top. They really can draw people in, in a way where it doesn't have to be big and huge and in your face. I remember that feeling of hearing that and just thinking how great that was that you can turn it around and do something, the opposite of what you would expect that you need to do to get peoples' attention, but I have definitely learned from that, just like that.
JAZZREVIEW: I want to talk to Tierney a little bit about you.
GRETCHEN PARLATO: We've known each other since I was 17, right out of high school and I studied privately with her and we've become great friends. I was her nanny for her son, Ryan. She's like a big sister to me.
JAZZREVIEW: I think that people who read this interview will be interested to see what another artist thinks about what you do.
GRETCHEN PARLATO: That's a great idea. You are picking the perfect person for that. She was there when I recorded my CD demo as well and she's really, she's been a huge, a huge factor for me as far as everything technical, everything emotional and spiritual. She's my sister. She's great. I love her.
JAZZREVIEW: Great. Thank you so much, Gretchen.
Tierney Sutton was on tour and asked if I could ask my questions by email, which I did, and here is what she had to say.
JAZZREVIEW: I believe you met Gretchen when she became your student. Could you tell me about how you taught her and what you have learned from teaching her?
TIERNEY SUTTON: I met Gretchen when she was in high school. She came to see me perform and we started to work together – She was an amazing talent already. The first thing she played was for me was a recording of her singing the famous Stan Getz solo on “Desafinado” note perfect with the LACSA band. We used to just hang in my studio apartment and sing to Jamey Abersold play-along CDs and I’d teach her songs and improvise with her. We had similar vocal ranges so it was easy to work with her and just practice as I would by myself. She was an amazing sponge and has always had an AMAZING rhythmic sense. Very quickly she became more of a colleague than a student and certainly, I gained a lot by working with her.
JAZZREVIEW: What do you think about Gretchen’s choice of music?
TIERNEY SUTTON: Gretchen has been very true to her own vision and that’s all that any of us can do. She always had an affinity for Brazilian music but has embraced other world music as well – I think it is fantastic and sincere.
JAZZREVIEW: Where do you see Gretchen going next with her career?
TIERNEY SUTTON: Gretchen’s in for the long haul. She’s an artist with a creative vision and I know she’ll attract the right collaborators. I’m looking forward to her next recording.
JAZZREVIEW: Anything else that you think is important would be appreciated
TIERNEY SUTTON: Gretchen seems to share a sense with me and my band that the most important thing about music making is the ability to truly listen – I can just SEE her listening when she’s working, whether or not she’s singing.
For more information: gretchenparlato.com
Photo by: © Nicolau Vergueiro
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