Gretchen Parlato's voice is a thing of wonder. Striking the ideal balance between precision and flexibility, she is never predictable, blurring the lines between singer and instrumentalist as she takes a lyric — and at other times improvised flights of wordless fancy — to places it's never before been. On In a Dream, her debut album for ObliqSound, Parlato and her intuitive support team reinvent constantly, Parlato impeccably articulating in a voice so ethereal that the listener might very well feel that he or she is "in a dream."
Coming four years after her self-titled debut, In a Dream finds Parlato embarking on a beguiling journey deep into the heart of both her own compositions and classic material by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Duke Ellington, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and others — all of which she instantly makes her own. Each song emerges as a unique world unto itself, yet there's an undeniable thread linking them all together.
Aligning with a virtuosic quartet she describes as "inspiring, creative, sensitive, musical souls" — Lionel Loueke on guitar, Aaron Parks on piano and Fender Rhodes, Derrick Hodge on acoustic and electric bass, and drummer Kendrick Scott — Parlato brings the warmth and compelling command of her much-heralded live performances to 10 exquisite new peeks into her artistic personality. In a Dream firmly places Gretchen Parlato in the upper echelon of today's vocal artists.
Both Hancock and Shorter are already fans. Hancock has said that Parlato has a "deep, almost magical connection to the music," and Shorter has said "in an inconspicuous way, Gretchen plays the same instrument as Frank Sinatra."
"In A Dream" (mp3)
from "In A Dream (iTunes bonus track edition)"
Buy at iTunes Music Store
"Turning Into Blue" (mp3)
from "In A Dream (iTunes bonus track edition)"
Buy at iTunes Music Store
Interview with Gretchen Parlato, by Stuart Vail, Editor-in-Chief:
SV: Both of my parents are artists, and growing up I thought everyone had watercolors, oil paints, easels, darkrooms, and potter's wheels at their disposal, so it was a shock in grade school for me to realize that I was very different. And you, with a grandfather who was a recording engineer with the Beatles and a father who played bass with Zappa, when did you realize that you were growing up in unique circumstances and how did it affect you?
GP: I was born into an artistic family and was surrounded by art from my very first breath. Both of my parents, grandparents on both my mother's and father's side, aunts and uncles, were and are involved in the arts and entertainment industry. My mother is a visual artist and web designer and has studied music. My father is a bassist, my sister is a graphic designer, one grandfather was a recording engineer, the other a trumpeter and singer, my grandmother had a radio show in the 1940s and my uncle is an actor. The list goes on.
I grew up in Los Angeles and most of my friends had parents in arts and entertainment as well. The schools I attended had strong art components where the arts classes were thought of as equally important as other academics. I attended Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA), so I was always immersed in an artistic community. It wasn't really until my twenties that I started to realize that I had some kind of special artistic circumstance growing up. To me it was normal and it still is.
What a beautiful mindset for parents to instill early on in a child that art is a vital and necessary part of our every day experience. My parents allowed my sister and me to find our own passion in art, it was never forced upon us. It's this gift we were born with, it's our calling, so growing up with a family who supported and encouraged that calling has been a complete blessing.
SV: One of your strong points is your incredible sense of time (Flor De Lis, Chega De Saudade)... it seems effortless, as if the rhythmic connection with each tune is part of your DNA. Is that something you worked on or did you always have it?
GP: First of all, thank you so much for that compliment! I think my sense of time is rooted in both nature and nurture. I have heard music since birth and learned to sing as i learned to talk. I related to and identified with music very early in my life, hearing a sound, and responding to it. On my latest album "In A Dream" we used recordings of myself singing and beating out rhythms at 2 years old as intros to a couple songs. Hearing those early recordings, it seems clear that I had some profound connection to music.
I went on to formally study music, especially rhythm and was greatly inspired by a percussion ensemble taught by Leon Mobley at LACHSA and a course I took in college "Music and Dance of Ghana" taught by Kobla Ledzekpo at UCLA. We learned all the various drum parts, shaker, bell patterns, as well as dances and melodic calls and responses. When you learn this way you connect your entire body to the rhythm, you feel it in the deepest way. Then hopefully, it becomes effortless.
SV: What kind of ear training did you study? Can you "hear" a piece of music by simply looking at it... and I'm not talking about having perfect pitch — unless you do!
GP: No, I definitely cannot hear a piece of music by just looking at the page. I do read music but I tend to learn the best by ear so its a combination of both methods. For me, its just hearing something and singing it back over and over again until i get it. i don't think i have perfect pitch, but usually I can hear the starting note to each of my songs and am right most of the time, but not always. Although, some musician friends think that I have perfect pitch. Sometimes they test me by starting a song in a different key, instead of my written key, and see how long it takes me to realize it's not right. Usually a few bars in, im making some kind of face and thinking that the song sounds weird! So, maybe I have relative pitch.
SV: I've always felt that Brazilian musicians have a musicality like no one else. What drew you to that style?
GP: I fell in love with Brazilian music, bossa nova specifically, at first listen while in junior high. While looking through my mother's record collection I came across "Getz/Gilberto". First, I was visually struck by the cover, a bright orange abstract painting and when i put the record on, I immediately fell in love with the music. It has such a warm, inviting, gorgeous sound, especially Joao Gilberto's voice - I had never heard anyone sing so simply and understatedly. Joao Gilberto makes what he sings and plays on guitar seem so effortless, yet even at my young age i could hear that it was very advanced. From there i started to learn songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim, and also began to get into jazz around that same time.
SV: You must speak Portuguese, with how well you sing those lyrics. Where and how did you learn it?
GP: I studied Portuguese while earning my BA in Ethnomusicology / Jazz studies at UCLA. After one semester i was able to read the language and pronounce it fairly well and also got help from one of my best friends, Nicolau Vergueiro, who is Brazilian. His father Guilherme Vergueiro is a wonderful pianist who took me under his wing, hired me to sing with his band and connected me to the Brazilian community of musicians. Another friend and incredible guitarist from Brazil, named Marcel Camargo was a huge musical influence on me as well.
It's funny though, when I first attempted to sing "Desafinado" in high school, I learned the words phonetically and had absolutely no idea what I was saying. i just learned the syllables by ear and am sure it sounded hilarious to any Portuguese speaker! But that is how we learn music, even learning to talk at first by just imitating sound.
I'm grateful for the influence of Brazilian music on my own music. I've been focusing on song writing and lyric writing lately and have lessened the Portuguese lyrics in my repertoire, and focused more on English. It's a beautiful process of telling my own story.
SV: You wrote your own lyrics to Wayne Shorter's "Juju," in which you use the word "footprints," which cleverly foreshadows the second half of that track, which is Shorter's tune "Footprints." Was that the grand plan or did the decision to segue to "Footprints" come as a result of your lyric?
GP: My first attempt at writing lyrics was an assignment that Terence Blanchard gave me when I was in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles. Dayna Stephens, a beautiful saxophonist in our band wanted to play "Juju." So Terence said, "Ok, Gretchen write some lyrics." And there it was. I had never tried and didn't even think I could but that's proof of Terence being a great teacher by challenging me. In writing the lyrics I thought about the experience we had when Wayne Shorter came to teach our class and gathered some notes of things he said, ideas he shared, and drew upon them. I used the word "footprints" as a reference to his composition, and the seque came from an arrangement idea we had when we played it as an ensemble. Lionel Loueke was also in the Monk ensemble and he had an arrangement of "Footprints" so we decided to link the two pieces.
SV: I like how you use your voice almost like a cuica in "Juju." Tell us about how you consider the voice as a complete instrument.
GP: Thank you very much! I do think of the voice as an instrument, perhaps as the first instrument. Range is the only thing that limits each voice, beyond that, we can sing anything, change the color of sound and even resonance by changing the vowel and consonant. We can sing with syllables, or add words, and really tell a personal and unique story. It's so much about the connection to ourselves, to our souls, as humans, and then reflecting that in our musical voice.
SV: What's your dream gig... the one at the top of your Wish List?
GP: Oooh, what a good question! hmmm.. Well I'd love to sing with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock again. I was fortunate to sing with Herbie when I was a student, and Wayne played with my band when he invited me to perform at the Jazz a la Villette Festival in Paris in 2007. i would also love to sing with Bobby McFerrin. I'd love to sing with Joao Gilberto. I'd love to sing with Stevie Wonder. oh, you only asked for one dream gig! ... :)
Photography by Jeaneen Lund
Management: Karen Kennedy