Gretchen Parlato on being a jazz singer and her thoughts on Esperanza Spalding's Grammy win

Gretchen Parlato (due at Dazzle Jazz for a series of shows tonight and tomorrow night) is often accused of restraint. Ironically, though, she holds absolutely nothing back. Her unmistakable vocal style evokes Chet Baker and Miles Davis's famously muted performances, and like those giants of style, her lack of volume shouldn't be mistaken for lack of presence.

Since 2007, she has recorded some of the most affecting moments in music on her own albums and alongside contemporary jazz messengers like Robert Glasper, and Esperanza Spalding. These moments are achieved by her pure approach to composition no matter the genre and from courageous attempts to find what is authentically herself in any song. This has led her to reinvent songs by everyone from Bjork to SWV to Bill Evans, and she never stands above the material or holds anything back. We spoke with Gretchen in advance of her show this evening at Dazzle.

Westword: What is your first memory of jazz music?

Gretchen Parlato: I have a few early memories. It's been in my life forever. There was all kinds! It was a good way to be spoiled. Everyone's an artist in my family. My mom is also a musician and a visual artist. Having artists parents, they knew the importance of exposing me and my sister to all types of music and art and making art part of our everyday. it was just always there.

So were you guys the weird art kids then?

[laughs] We were! But you know I always had a community of other weird art kids. So in a way it's kind of cool that it I never really questioned it. I've always surrounded myself with other artists. My close friends, people I've been in relationships with, I went to an arts high school, even my elementary school was arts based. Again, it's a cool way to be sheltered and spoiled and just be around artists all the time. So my whole community, my family, the people that I chose to be around, were all kooky and weird. But, nothing's weird anymore, everybody's weird.

I was trying to figure out a good way to ask this question, and I don't think there is, so I will just fire away: Are you a jazz singer? Do you call it "jazz," or is it just "Gretchen Parlato" music?

[laughs] I would call it jazz. I would also then expand on that; I think there are definitely roots in jazz tradition -- there's jazz elements about the music that I do. But I know that it could be debatable to a jazz purist whether what I'm doing is really fitting into that box. It has elements of jazz, Brazilian music. When I worked with Lionel Loueke, it has elements of West Africa, as well. There's pop, and there's R&B.

Ultimately, I think there's this umbrella term of jazz, and what's cool about not just what's happening with my music, but this general sense of what's happening with this generation of musicians, is It's a very broad term, and we can incorporate all types of music, and we can be influenced and inspired by all kinds of sounds. We can fuse that into what we do, and it can still be considered jazz. And that's how you keep jazz moving and growing and thriving. It's just moving as it used to. Back in the day, it was popular music, so in order for us to keep it that way, we have to think of something new!

Is that the best thing about jazz music right now? And if not then what is the best thing about jazz right now?

I think that could be considered one of the best things about jazz, is that there's all kinds of influence and inspiration. That being said, there's also very traditional jazz, and basically there's room for everybody. Ultimately, the best thing is that you can be very traditional and sing standards in a standard way, and there's an audience for that. And you can study that your whole life and then try something that incorporates another kind of music as well and that's okay, too. It's not that there's one way to do it and to feel it. It is jazz, but it's art, and it's music, and the point is for people to feel something and react.

Okay, so that's the best thing. What's the worst thing?

[laughs] Really?

Well what would you change about the state of jazz right now?

Hmm, I might sound like the weird artist hippy girl or whatever, but I don't have a complaint about what jazz is, or what I'm doing with music. And that's more of a philosophy on my life. I could find things that maybe could shift or change, but ultimately, it's like that's not a good way to live our lives and think about what we do. For me, there is nothing better than finding our passion in life and pursuing that, and really just spending my life doing what I love. And like I said earlier, having that affect other people, and hopefully it makes them feel something, that's really a beautiful thing!

To that point, I wanna bring up Esperanza Spalding's Grammy win this past year. She is your contemporary, your peer; you've collaborated with her. Were you as struck as the rest of us as to just how many people didn't know who she was?

[laughs] I was! When I heard that she was nominated, I was just ecstatic. So exciting! But in the back of my head, I was like, but Justin Beiber's in there, too! So I thought, "She might win, but it's probably not likely." But she's gonna go to the Grammys, and it's awesome just to be nominated, and she will have her moment when they will put her picture up on the screen, and that's already incredible!

I was at home watching on TV, and when they called her name, I was in as much shock as anybody else. I'm a very emotional person, so I started crying. My hands are, like, on my face! I couldn't believe it! It's such an amazing thing for her, and for the state of music, and like you said, there are so many people who had no idea who she was, and now they do! And it's not even just about what she does, but about what she represents, and the doors she's opening up for other people. So it's a pretty gigantic accomplishment for everybody.

There are so many different layers and elements of why that is an amazing thing. So I couldn't believe it, and I also thought back to myself, that's a perfect example of why you never assume anything! You never know! So, I hardly ever watch this, but I was in a hotel on tour, and on the last season of American Idol one of the singers was a bassist, and he was gonna perform a jazz standard, and he mentioned that he wanted to "follow in Esperanza Spalding's footsteps." That he can mention her name on this giant stage and that people now know who she is, is just amazing!

So I bring that up to address the tug and pull between jazz and modern America. I can remember back in the '80s when there was a really staunch, highbrow, jazz purist movement. Back then the message was: We have to preserve and respect jazz, and you're a peasant if you don't love jazz. In the '90s there was a wave of musicians who were jazz artists, but were eager to be regarded apart from jazz. There were a lot of lite jazz, and fusion records and stuff like that. Now we come to the modern age and you and a lot of your contemporaries, and what's really interesting to me, is that you guys don't care how you are regarded at all, is that correct?

I would agree. Even when you prompted your question like "I don't know how to ask this" I thought, "Uh oh, what is he going to ask," then it's like "Do you consider yourself a jazz aritst? and I'm like, "Oh! that's nothing" There's no point in fighting that [label]; it's not even a fight! Jazz is not a bad word. We just have to redefine the word and embrace it. I did my study in jazz, completely. UCLA, Monk Institute, starting even back in my high school. But there's not a song in my repertoire that swings in a traditional way. There might be someone else out there, let them fight it. I've always come up with the mentality that it's not my job to define what I do, or put it in some category. All it is, is to find some passion, and express that. There's a sense of let it be art for art's sake, and not boxed in in any way.

Okay, so, I've re-listened to all your records, and they are always really accessible. So to me, they automatically become pop, at least in the sense that not too many people are gonna be like: "Turn that crap off! What is that noise? it's so grating!" So for that reason, it's strange to me that there hasn't been more of the mainstream coming to you, or does that come with time?

Yeah, I think it does. To me, and this is very humbly said, I never thought that I would be in that sort of category to compete with other artists like that. So in that sense, I have thought of myself as a "jazz artist." I get starstruck if I ever hear of a pop artist even knowing who I am. Like, through word of mouth, I'll hear, "Oh yeah, [some R&B singer] heard your stuff, and he thinks it's great!" And I'm like "What?! How does he even know who I am?" So I still think of it as like "my little jazz world." When you're working with people like Robert [Glasper], for example, either as he's co-produced my album or we've done these arrangements of these pop tunes, you think of the people he works with outside of jazz, and it all snowballs and extends so much further outside of jazz.

So instead of barking around about what category it is, just let the music speak for itself. I'm a fan of doors being opened, and not for the sake of "I'm going to go out there and change the world!" Just make art, and if it happens to change the world that's great. My whole intention with any of this was not "I'm gonna be really different! And I'm gonna show them! I'm gonna prove myself!" It was never some kind of revenge on anything. It was: This is what my story is, and I just want to share it. Coming from a much more humble place. I'm always just happy that people have heard my music. Even if they didn't like it, they heard it.

I appreciate your humility, but I have to take you to task on something you just said. You said, "I didn't really set out to be different" I understand that, but there had to be some moment of recognition early on when you realized that "one of these kids is doing her own thing". Your approach is so singular, you had to know you were different.

[laughs] What I mean is that wasn't my intention. My intention was the acceptance of myself being different. It started out from singing in choir, in musical theater, or along with the radio and having that mentality of sounding like other people. Then it was the realization as an early teenager, that this is the voice that is not affected.

If I don't try to sound like a character in a musical theater show, or sing like I'm supposed to sound in this choir... if I just sing in a very honest natural way, that's what I need to accept. Then that snowballs. Then that becomes, "Okay, what can I do with this sound?" So the intention isn't waking up and saying, "I'm purposely not going to sound like anyone else." It's accepting that this is what naturally comes out if I just accept who I am.

So my first introduction to you was on DJ Center's album when you did "You Got The Love" by Rufus and Chaka Khan.

Cool! Yeah!

Wait a minute, because I'm mad at you. Chaka Khan is literally my favorite singer, and "You Got The Love" is probably my favorite song of hers, and your version has basically replaced hers in my mind.

C'mon now!

Not really, but at least for 2009, 2010, 2011 The way the zeitgeist is right now, your version is working a little more for me. I'm sure I'll go back someday...

Well it's different. That's definitely a big compliment and I thank you for that.

Can you walk me through the process of recording that record, because as you can see I'm fascinated by it?

Yeah....Well, it was Center's track, it was his idea to have me sing that particular song. My first thought was probably what people would think before they hear it. Like, "Wait -- Gretchen Parlato is singing Chaka Khan 'You Got The Love'? This is not okay. She's a legendary singer that goes into that category of people that I am so inspired by, that I sound nothing like! It's a such a melody, that you can't be too soft spoken; there has to be some weight there. And I was nervous to do it! But Center reminded, me of like when I did the Michael Jackson ["Can't Help It"] with Lionel, I thought of that, and was inspired by [how we did ] that version.

Even though we have this classic singer and this classic version of a song, how can we do something unique and different and allow my very different voice to be effective -- I guess is the best way to say it. So, I just tried to be subtle about it, and think of the lyric of the song, and have some element of soul, and be more understated. And that's a direction, a path that I follow from other singers, or, say, neo-soul singers, where it's very soulful but not heavy, like Maxwell or some sides of Jill Scott's voice... or Janet Jackson, even. Like it's not that it's a heavy voice, but it's really present and really soulful... or even Marvin Gaye.

We did some takes -- in that track it was definitely a pop sensibility in that it wasn't one take all the way through. We did section by section, in a pop sense, and got it to where we wanted it. It was overdubbing of octaves and backgrounds. So it was fun to have that track "pop produced".

To be clear, that's not usually the way that you will usually record a vocal correct?

That's true, if it's on my album, I sing live with the band, and if I make a mistake, I will go back and fix a word of two or a phrase. I'm not gonna act like I sing everything perfectly in the studio. Most of the time, it's live. If there's ever like a solo or an ad-lib thing, that's live... it's kind of hard to go back, because you're interacting with the band, and that's that moment. I'm a fan, on an album of perfecting it to where you are happy to hear that over and over again for the rest of your life. [laughs] Sometimes, for me in the studio, it takes a minute to get into that zone, and the whole balance of what we do.

So you mentioned your process in covering other people's records, and I wanna bring up another one of your contemporaries and that's Becca Stevens. What's interesting to me about the both of you, is that you don't have the slightest hint of irony in the songs that you cover... you both choose songs that could be considered cheesy and ironic, but not when you guys sing them. Where does the choice come from? What makes you say, "You know what? I'm gonna sing this Bjork song today"?

Well that's kind of what happens. Because I've grown up, probably like every other human being, there's not only one style of music that we listen to, or one genre of art that one is inspired by. So having heard all types of music growing up, there's always songs that just hit you in your core. There's always been a part of me since I was little that's like, "I LOVE that song!" and I will sing along with the original track. So when I got into singing my own music and trying to choose a repertoire, it was like, "Okay, what would happen if I tried to sing a Bjork song?"

The thought process, for me, is: Here we have this classic version, and it's an incredible version. Let's take it for what it is, and let's find all the gems. The gem phrases, like what is the best part of this song, what makes it so ridiculously great, and kind of... milk that, so to speak. So you're not losing the essence of what makes that song so incredible. And also to think of it like a jazz standard. In a jazz world, how many times has a jazz singer sung "Body and Soul"? Like a million, billion times. But I would approach ["Body and Soul"] the same way.

It's a melody, and chords and lyrics, so how can I tell my story through this song? I like to say that you deconstruct the song, and get it to its bare bones. It's simplest form. Everything that I build on to that song to re-construct it, is from my own life, my own experience. Using Becca Stevens as an example, because I adore what she does, and she's my best friend, too, what she does is so genuine, and so pure and honest.

And like you said, it's not cheesy and not ironic, it's just completely heartfelt, and emotional and intellectual. Take, as an example, her cover of "Kiss from A Rose" by Seal. She sings that song from the heart! What we both do, is we never try to sound like the original singer, because that's gonna be your downfall. Think of it as a jazz standard: What's the original melody, how was the song written? Not how did Seal sing it, or what did Michael Jackson ornament right here? But how did Stevie Wonder write this melody?

She's so inspiring to me. She's got a newer cover of an Usher song, and it's so shocking and so opposite, but it works. Because it's honest and it's pure. It's taking a song for the beauty of what that song is, and telling your own story. And doing an arrangement that's so specific and so unique. I think she's awesome. People compare her, and I think there's reason for it, to like the Joni Mitchell school of singing. Her [Joni Mitchell's] voice is just this really pure, beautiful voice but there's soul under there. Soul is to me not a black or white issue; when I say that word, I mean in a sense of actually as a human being, your soul. The core of your being. Becca taps into that immediately, and that's what makes it soulful.

There's a theory that artists consistently pursue one underlying theme in their work. A poet, writes the same poem his entire career. A great composer, tells the same story no matter the subject matter there's that one underlying theme. Is your self-acceptance that underlying theme that you try to express through your art?

Yeah, I believe so. I like that saying, too; I haven't really heard that. I think it's a really interesting thing to think about for artists. Really, what it is, is about honesty and acceptance and revealing that and sharing it with other people. Really, you could use the word love. Which is a deceptively simple word, but it's kind of about that, and using that word in all the different ways that you can imagine that word could be used. Love for yourself in your life, and for other people, the world, all of that.

What I'm tapping into is acceptance, and that could be acceptance of who I am, yes, but it's also acceptance of life itself. That's why the album is called The Lost and Found; it is an acceptance of the opposition of being lost and found. We have this theme of up and down, and yin and yang in our lives constantly. Every moment to moment, but also in the bigger picture, where it's a cycle. Feeling like everything is wonderful, and life makes perfect sense and then having a bad day something tragic happens. Or little small things, I'm late, or I missed the train.

What's really struck me is your willingness to reveal your age. Does your camp freak out when you're like, "Oh and by the way I'm 35!"?

[laughs] I think maybe in the beginning it was -- because I've been told, I don't know if I agree or not, but people are usually surprised because I look younger than 35. Or maybe it's because I'm still up and coming, and the reaction is like, "Oh but you're already 35!" But actually, I love it! Being in your mid 30s is a very good place to be; there's a lot of clarity and it's a calming place to be. I also have a very young youthful silly side to me anyway, so I'm still kind of enjoying a younger feeling and energy with my life. I don't know if anybody in my camp ever said, "Yeah, let's downplay that." This is just me, and I've never been the kind of woman who feels like you have to lie about your age and keep it a secret. It's just: this is who you are.

So, having said that, is it easier to be a "Grown Ass Woman" in jazz, than, say, another type of music?

[laughs] Is it easier to be a grown ass woman in jazz, than, say, another field -- is that the question? Well...yeah! I think that's always been accepted with jazz, especially jazz singers. It's seems like the older you get...there's something really deep about Shirley Horn towards the end of her life. There's something really beautiful about the early voice of Sarah Vaughn, but the really heavy stuff is probably the middle of her life... the end of her life. There's something really wonderful about Nancy Wilson on the Cannonball [Adderly] album; she's nineteen-years-old on that record, which is just absurd how good she is!

There's something to be acknowledged and nurtured when a singer is young and "kickin' ass," so to speak. But also something really wonderful with jazz singers, and the maturity and a wisdom that happens with age. That's a reason why I'm not trying to, you know, hide my age, because there's a part of me that's like, if I was 21 years old trying to put out a CD and do what I do now... I wasn't ready for that. I was still trying to find myself and figure out what I wanted to do.

I love the fact that I'm 35 and I'm very aware of who I am, what I want to do and where I want to go, and maybe even how to get there is perhaps more clear than it was when I was young. So I think it's a good thing in this field to have some life experience, and that goes for instrumentalists too. Go to a Wayne Shorter concert, and that will move you. Just the same as he'll move you when he was a teenager. It's just that there's something that people care for, when you are mid-life or older as a jazz musician.

Gretchen Parlato, 6 and 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 22 and 7 and 9 p.m. Thursday, June 23, Dazzle Jazz, 930 Lincoln Street, 303-839-5100.

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