Out and About #01: Gretchen
Out and About resulted from some considerations about happiness. I wondered what within my grasp would make me happier, and one of the answers was to write about music more. I love writing, I write about music for one of the most prestigious outlets in the world, but I don’t write there often. Not too too long ago, I wrote about music two or thee times a week. I can’t do that again, but I can write more often. Just because I’m not paid for my musings doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the exercise.
Gretchen Parlato makes intense music that isn’t overpowering. Instead, she draws you in, painstakingly measuring the emotion and feeling into every word of a lyric or engaging with rhythmically potent vocalese often offset by a member of her band. Her work is unique and compelling, and it had been missing as Parlato, once a regular in several corners of the New York jazz scene all but vanished in recent years.
She marked her return the weekend between Christmas and New Years with four mostly sold out performances at Jazz Gallery. She presented a commission, The Stars or Space Between, a suite of eight songs that pondered identity as it related to parenthood. It was a musical way of explaining where she’d been. Parlato arrived on the scene in 2004 by winning the Thelonious Monk Vocal Competition. She became a vital part of the NYC scene recording several times on her own and guesting on dozens of other recordings. She was nominated for a Grammy in 2015. Yet afterward, she was gone.
The short answer of what happened is that she had a son and decided to be a full time Mom. But as an artist, an artist on the verge of stardom in the jazz community, it was a decision fraught with complications. In her eight songs she parses those issues and wonders what our sources of identity are.
Saturday night’s first set sizzled and pulsated with the quiet confidence that has become her trademark. Rather than bowl us over, the music drew us in with discreet details, a guitar/vocalese/bass improvisation in one song, small percussion and vocals dueting in another. The band, Camila Meza guitar/backing vocals, Chris Morrissey bass, and her husband Mark Guiliana drums, sounded as if they’d lived in the material for a while (when in fact, it was the first public performances). Meza, whose own group, the Nectar Orchestra, traffics in similarly refined music, in particular seemed especially sympathetic to Parlato’s vocal approach.
Parlato’s subject matter is a fresh addition to the jazz lexicon, and her style is a fascinating blend of performers like Shirley Horn and styles like bossa nova and various West African musical styles. She and Guilana recently relocated to Los Angeles, a homecoming for Parlato who is from California, but this weekend demonstrated that she can pick up where she left off on the New York scene.
An interview with Parlato about her new work is here, https://www.jazzspeaks.org/the-stars-or-space-between-gretchen-parlato-speaks/#more-7100
Martin Johnson is a freelance writer whose work on music, sports and culture has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Newsday, New York, Vogue, Rolling Stone, The Root, Slate, The Atlantic, and numerous other publications and websites. He also blogs at Rotations, and he can be contacted at email@example.com.