This jazzwoman speaks softly, but carries a big repertoire

Boston Globe, October 11, 2009

NEW YORK – How refreshing. One of the biggest new voices in song is not, in fact, a big voice at all.

It’s the voice of Gretchen Parlato, who has taken an antiheroine’s route to prominence as a jazz singer, breaking with the conventional character traits. Rather than belt or blare, Parlato’s sound is light and contained, nearly conversational. In lieu of frills and pyrotechnics, she uses nuance and a great harmonic subtlety. Her material avoids standards and torch songs in favor of progressive fare from different moments and styles, with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock among her touchstone influences.

For Parlato, 33, who plays Regattabar on Thursday in support of her quietly mesmerizing new album, “In a Dream,” going understated actually maximizes her assets.

“You can hear that my speaking voice is not very loud,” she says over salade nicoise at an Upper West Side terrace on a recent afternoon. “My singing voice is not very loud. It’s about being comfortable with yourself, and what you are capable of, knowing that I can get the best resonance and the best tone at this volume.”

The judgment of her peers has vindicated her approach. Since 2003, when she arrived in New York, Parlato has gathered some of the edgiest new talent in jazz – guitarist Lionel Loueke, drummer Kendrick Scott, bassist Derrick Hodge, pianist Aaron Parks – to take time from their own burgeoning careers and play and record with her.

The first vocalist ever accepted in the ultra-selective Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz program (in the same batch of seven with Loueke), she counts its leadership, including Shorter, Hancock, and Terence Blanchard, among her mentors.

It’s an impressive journey into the creative heart of jazz today for this small-voiced, low-key woman from Los Angeles (“I’m a Valley girl,” she says with a smile), who grew up in a family of artists and entertainers, but listened to pop and new wave.

“I’m a child of the ’80s,” Parlato says. “The MTV generation, that was all I cared about.”

Still, she sang from the start: The new album includes, in fact, a few tiny recorded snippets of 2-year-old Gretchen warbling, which makes for a cute and funny punctuation. But to find her voice took a journey into a foreign language and a foreign genre, sparked by an accidental discovery from her mother’s record collection.

The record was “Getz/Gilberto,” the 1964 bossa nova classic by Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto, featuring the songs of Antonio Carlos Jobim. “It was love at first sound. I was completely taken by Joao Gilberto’s voice, and the simplicity of that album and style. It’s just so understated. And my reaction was, oh, you can do that?”

Without understanding the words, the teenage Parlato taught herself the solos by ear. “I could imitate the whole thing, and just do it phonetically,” she says. Soon she was taking Portuguese in high school and college so she could inhabit the material with its meaning.

Bossa nova remains a first love for Parlato, even as her jazz career has blossomed. About half the songs on her first album, self-released in 2005 (and titled “Gretchen Parlato”) are in Portuguese; iTunes lists the disc under “Latino.”

But the biggest payoff from her Brazilian phase was how it freed her to develop her quiet, complex style in the spirit of Gilberto or Rosa Passos – and transfer the results back to her mother tongue.

With her new CD, Parlato takes on an exciting range of materials, from classic Shorter (“ESP”) and Hancock (“Butterfly”) to a radical reconstruction of “Weak,” a mostly forgotten pop hit by R&B group SWV. She fields her voice as an instrument, never dominating the band, but working in subtle sympathy.

“The thing I enjoy about her is she’s a musician first,” says drummer Scott, who appears on the album and in the current touring unit. “I love how she includes herself in the sound of the group first. She lets us play, and then she jumps right into the middle – never the periphery.”

The connection and trust open up new horizons even on the familiar tunes on “In a Dream,” allowing reworkings that are jagged, deconstructive, sometimes cerebral, but still textured and melodic. Without those possibilities, Parlato says, there would be no point in replicating already perfect songs like “I Can’t Help It,” which Stevie Wonder wrote for Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall.”

“Did anyone really need to redo that song?” Parlato says. “No. For me you have to kind of deconstruct these songs, rip everything down, and get it to its simplest, purest form. And then anything that you add to it is from your own life, your story.”