Miles Davis once famously said, “It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.” He meant that there was another way of entering jazz than through rapid-fire chord changes and solos; that restraint could be just as illuminating, if not more so, than the blistering dexterity so common to his day.

Gretchen Parlato seems an undeniable descendant of this school of thought. Her voice, feather-soft, rarely rises above that unmistakable, signature whisper. She improvises, but bypasses intricate scat singing for solos with fewer notes and less-pronounced syllables. In a similar fashion to Davis, her music is more about what she doesn’t do than what she does.

Part of this can be attributed to a less-is-more philosophy, but her use of restraint, she says, also developed from the constraint of her voice’s natural quality.

“If I had this really big amazing voice that could sing operatic music, or R&B, or crazy runs, that would be incredible. But I don’t have a voice like that. That’s just not the way my make-up is built. So I just realized, What can I do with what I was born with?”

In three albums, she has managed to do quite a lot. Her latest release, The Lost and Found, is another foray into R&B covers, standards, and Brazilian music—but this time, Parlato penned the bulk of the album’s tunes.

“It feels really good to get over that hump—the blockage that I had about writing. It took me a long time, actually, to let that to come out.”

Many of the songs she has come up with tackle a theme she finds fascinating—opposition. “It exists all the time. Everyday we have moments where we’re feeling good about something, and then feeling disappointed. And I just applied that to music, too. The opposition in music of sound and space, themes and moods.”

She evokes this sense of contrast with a variety of soundscapes which range from the folksy duet with Alan Hampton, “Still,” to the cover of the 1990s Mary J. Blige hit “All That I Can Say.” But more interesting than the contrast in genres is the contrast between the songs she chooses for herself and those she passes over. Her repertoire includes standards here and there, but more often than not, lands on unlikely items previously unheard of in jazz (the best example being “In a Dream’s” total overhaul of SWV’s “Weak”). The R&B remakes have become a theme for Parlato while the American songbook, and the traditional way of treating its contents, have remained largely untouched.

There’s also the opposition between expectation and reality. The songs “Circling,” “Still,” and “The Lost and Found” are only a few examples of songs that take up the irony of life as their subject. On “Circling,” for which Parlato wrote both music and lyrics, the key lyric is “’Cause when you think you’ve lost, you’ve won/You’ve found another chance to see the sun.” The title track ventures into similar territory: “Think I’ve found everything/Only then to realize it’s only in my mind.”

Although she makes a point not to reveal the stories behind the songs, Parlato, 35, attributes their meanings to her life’s experiences and the major transition that happened at age 27, when she moved from Los Angeles to New York.

“I always call it like a soul-searching that happens….It seems like it happens in your late-20s, but not always. You really just realize, ‘Everything I thought life was about, I was wrong.’”

This piece of insight is perhaps why she pulls off the bittersweet so evocatively. The opening track is a cover of Simply Red’s “Holding Back the Years,” which, on the original (and another cover, by Angie Stone), comes off as soulful and bluesy, but on Parlato’s version, captures the song’s melancholy perfectly. When she sings “Nothing had the chance to be good/Nothing ever could,” that twinge of regret is strikingly clear.

Regret is possibly an unspoken undercurrent through the music, but Parlato says she arrived at this point of maturity in her life and career by “shedding everything.”

“…Shedding your armor, shedding the masks that we put up, the walls, the boundaries, artistically. All the obstacles. Everything that, ultimately, we create to block us from getting to the heart and core of the matter.”

This process, she says, was long, but also that it was “life-changing.” “I realized you don’t have to be anything except who you are, naturally, as artists. By revealing that, and being really open and vulnerable to who you are, where you come from, what you’re doing—then, the listener can relate. Then, we connect as human beings in a deeper way.”

It’s that dedication to the heart and core—to capturing the essence of a feeling—that allows her to sit comfortably between genres and styles, because the vessel, she believes, is less important than the content.

“Music is music,” she said. “It goes beyond any category.”

This liberal, yet spot-on definition of jazz, is what affords her the freedom to transform songs such as “Weak,” “Holding Back the Years,” “Blue in Green,” and others into statements all her own.

“It’s about breaking the song down to its simplest form,” she said. “It’s not to compare whatever I do to that. You’re honoring that song, you’re paying tribute to it….We’re not thinking, ‘Well, Ella already sang this song, so I can’t do it.’ It’s like, she did it, and I’m going to sing it as well, because that’s what you do in this repertoire. So what can I do with it that is unique to me, and unique to my story?”

What’s unique to her story, as well as to the stories of her bandmates, is a love for popular music that seems just as strong as a love for jazz. Robert Glasper, who served as the album’s associate producer, is known for his ability as a jazz pianist and composer, but he’s also collaborated with an outstanding number of hip-hop artists, as well as young jazz musicians who clearly were influenced by hip-hop.

“A lot of people who are in their 20s and 30s, and 40s, too, we all grew up on all kinds of music. So it’s not uncommon for jazz artists to take music from their upbringing, that kind of becomes new standards to us, and then incorporate that into jazz, because jazz is living, it’s breathing, it’s alive.”

Words by Kyla Marshell

Gretchen Parlato The Lost and Found

Gretchen Parlato – THE LOST AND FOUND by DLMEDIA

Buy The Lost and Found in iTunes


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