Gretchen Parlato gave us an interview in May 2011.
LondonJazz: Tell us about your third album “The Lost and Found” (Obliqsound)
Gretchen Parlato: There’s a lot more original material, or lyrics that I wrote for other musicians’ melodies. There’s a song of Taylor’s (Eigsti) a song by Alan (Hampton) a song of Ambrose (Akinmusire) that I wrote lyrics to. There are pop covers as well – “Holding Back the Years” (Simply Red ) and “All that I Can Sing” (written by Lauryn Hill in 1999 for Mary J Blige) I like to say it’s another branch, growing from the same roots. It’s where we left off, but with the production team of Robert Glasper and me, there’s definitely a different sound.
LJ: Robert Glasper’s been a friend for a while, right?
GP:We met when I first moved to New York , this was 2003. He was one of the first people that I met. Robert and I became friends and musical collaborators from the beginning. We’d write and arrange music, try to write songs. We’ve only played together a few times. Where are you from, and where did you study? I’m originally from Los Angeles, and that’s where I moved from in 2003. I did all my study at UCLA where they have an enthno-musicology program, with a jazz studies specialization within it. Then I did the two-year progam at the Thelonius Monk Institute. It was an instrumental program before, and the year I heard about it they were opening auditions for singers. I believe it was Herbie Hancock who said he wanted to include singers, so they were specifically trying to find the right person to make it work.
LJ: And there’s music in your family background too?
GP: My father played bass in one of Frank Zappa’s groups. He’s a jazz musician as well. And he did a lot of rock music. In Los Angeles in the seventies and eighties, he was a session player, and that was the big-time for sessions. His father had been a singer and a trumpet player. On my mother’s side, her father was a recording engineer. He built a studio, and recorded Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. So there’s a lot of history with the entertainment industry, and specifically music in my family. It’s in the blood for sure.
LJ: Sarah Ellen Hughes wrote in her London Jazz Festival review about your “rhythmic confidence,” and the way you “feel the beat through [your] whole body.”
GP: Thank You! Rhythm does come from that nature/ nurture thing. If it’s in your blood, that definitely helps. It’s an instinctual thing, but if you hear it your entire life, especially if you hear different rhythms from all over the place, and very early, you think about it. And it helps to hear and to work with people from other places who have that sense of rhythm. Like when I worked with Lionel Loueke. That forced me to get it together, just being able to keep a steady beat while he’s weaving all over rhythmically. Someone needs to be steady so that the others can be interactive and play around it. There’s some part of my body that’s doing something that’s keeping it steady and another part that’s the soloist. And it’s a lot of practice. Study. Practice. You do it and then you don’t think about it any more.
LJ: You have also done a vocal duet with Lionel Loueke. What about the language?
GP: Yes, we did lyrics in a dialect that Lionel Loueke speaks. I had no idea what it meant – he told me, gave me general translation. I was learning that phonetically so there was a part of me that was saying: “This is really cool , but what’s my story? What do I have to reveal?” In a good way you turn that into something…
LJ: And you are also singing less in Portuguese?– there’s only one track on the new album.
GP: The Brazilian repertoire goes back to when I was thirteen years old. I was looking through my mother’s album/ vinyl collection, and I found the classics, Stan Getz, Gilberto Ipanema. I put that on and just fell in love with the sound. The whole sound of bossa nova, but very specifically Joao Gilberto’s voice, his approach. Even as a 13 year old I could hear and be moved by that, so detailed but you’re drawn in. It’s a pefect example of something being deceptively simple. It’s very tangible but there’s so much going on. And since then I’ve listened more, studied more, developed…. I do my best to be influenced by that whether I’m singing in Portuguese or English there’s so much there. I like to do Flor de Lis, often its about love, a study a listening Since I came to New York, I haven’t really immersed myself in the Brazilian scene. It’s been more jazz and my own music. I won’t really sing in Portuguese except one song here and there in the set. I’m not Brazilian. I don’t really sing the language, so I’m not really understanding every word as I’m singing it. But I realised I could take the rhythmical influence, the theoretical sound of Brazilian music and absorb that into writing my own music in English.
LJ: It must help to be playing regularly with the same musicians?
GP: That’s true, everyone speaks the same language. I’m so lucky with these guys. There’ definitely a sense of love and respect and admiration. And listening. That’s the probably most important part, just to be able to step back and appreciate whatever might be needed in the music , not trying to force your idea, or your sound, or who you are.
. LJ: Has “Butterfly” become something of a signature tune?
GP: I hadn’t realised it (laughs). But now when I start singing it or announce it, people start clapping. And it’s so crazy especially for a jazz musician, because that’s such a pop thing. As a lover of all kinds of pop music that’s something that you do and its like YEAH. But for people to react that way to a Herbie Hancock song that I arranged is pretty awesome. That’s also a Youtube thing. Whatever is on Youtube, people have seen that a lot. I think that is a lot to do with that live version from Germany. We do sing that every set. That is something which gives a nice balance.
LJ: Also on Youtube are some comedy videos…
GP: It’s an alter ego, another character. It’s a character that I created that taps into the absurdity of life. I put on a wig. The other singer is Becca Stevens. If you don’t know her, she’s incredible. There has been miscommunication. Maybe even criticism I’ve received. But it’s totally me, being fun.
LJ: And where does that come from?
GP: There’s a part of me that has always wanted to act. I’ve done improv. The feeling that I’ve got when I’m on stage or in a video – it’s making someone laugh I get the same joy as I do singing, even serious songs, there’s that community, that release.
LJ: So what you’re saying is that’s important to you to have a sense of humour, to be able to laugh?
GP: Yes. It’s totally just me being fun. It’s so important to laugh at life. Even at things that are extreme and painful and dark. You can find the beauty in it, you can smile about it. There’s some kind of absurd humour in there. When I think about being funny or laughing – either I’m making someone laugh , or someone is making me laugh, for that split second they’ve forgotten about whatever they’re in trouble with […] I think that’s something that runs in my family too, I come from funny people crazy people, when you grow up with funny parents you learn that that’s normal.
LJ: And how does humour work in the band?
Gretchen Parlato: This band is so funny A lot of artists before they perform they like to maybe connect with each other as a band, get together and say a prayer – I’ll have that desire, or the desire to just – laugh. That’s usually what we do. Jokes, jokes right up until the very moment when we go on stage. As soon as we’re on stage, there’s humour underneath it, but we’re focussed, serious…
LondonJazz: Which seems like a good point to wish you well for the gig. Thanks for the interview.