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The Graham Album Review #2077

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Gretchen Parlato: Flor
by George Graham

(Edition Records as broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/14/2021)

Over the decades, there has been a lot of fusing of jazz and rock instrumental music. But vocally, jazz and rock have not intertwined nearly as much. For one thing, vocal technique for jazz and rock tend to be very different. The way Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan sang is quite apart from that of say Janis Joplin or Bonnie Raitt. And the repertoire tends to be different with jazz singers usually performing American standards from Tim Pan Alley or music in that style, and rock singers doing original electric music.

But in recent years, especially among women vocalists with background in jazz, there has been a lot more genre mixing, often involving creative arrangements of rock tunes, in musical settings that hint at jazz, but can get electric. Cassandra Wilson is perhaps the epitome of the versatile singer who can sing straight jazz, but has recorded several albums of creative treatments of non-jazz material. Among other notable women who are bridging the jazz and rock vocal divide are Laila Biali, Kate McGarry, Patricia Barber, Sara Gazarek, and Tierney Sutton. This week, we have another excellent and imaginative recording by a singer steeped in the jazz world, who brings an impressive degree of eclecticism to bear. She is Gretchen Parlato, and her new recording is called Flor, which is the Portuguese and Spanish word for “flower.” It incorporates a good deal of Brazilian influence, juxtaposed with classical, in the form of a prominent cello including a performance of a Bach suite for cello done wordlessly, to a kind of lullaby, to a David Bowie song.

Gretchen Parlato is a native of Los Angeles from a musical family. Her father Dave Parlato, played bass in Frank Zappa’s band, her grandfather Charlie Parlato played trumpet for Lawrence Welk and Tennessee Ernie Ford. From an early age, Gretchen was influenced by Brazilian music, having listened to the classic Stan Getz/João Gilberto album from her mother’s collection. In college, she earned a bachelor’s degree in ethno-musicology from UCLA, and then was the first vocalist to be accepted into the Thelonious Monk Institiute of Jazz performance.

She has been living in New York since the early 2000s, and won first place in the unrelated Thelonious Monk International Jazz competition in 2004. Her eponymous debut album was released in 2005. She has kept active as a backing vocalist, appearing on some 85 recordings, according to her publicity biography, including with another eclectic woman in jazz Esperanza Spalding, plus Becca Stevens and Marcus Miller. Flor is her fifth solo release.

For it, she was joined by Brazilian native Marcel Camargo, who has worked with Michael Bublé among others. Also quite prominent is cellist Artyom Manukyan with Leo Costa on drums. Guests include the great Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira, and jazz pianist Gerald Clayton, often playing electric piano and guest drummer Mark Guiliana, who is Parlato’s father in law. There is not a lot of original material on the album, but the arrangements make it fascinating, with Ms. Parlatto’s clear pitch-perfect voice nicely executing the sometimes tricky material.

The album opens with a Brazilian song E Preciso Perdoar popularized by João Gilberto. While the percussion hints at the song’s Brazilian origin, the arrangement is atmospheric and a little melancholy, with lyrics in both Portuguese and English. <<>>

Very different in origin is the next track, Sweet Love made famous by soul star Anita Baker in the 1980s. Again, the arrangement is creative and puts the song in an entirely different light. Jazz pianist Gerald Clayton is the guest on this piece. <<>>

Quite charming is a song called Magnus, an original written for a friend’s young son, who appears in the children’s chorus. <<>>

The album features two tracks with Ms. Parlato singing wordlessly to the accompaniment of Artyom Manukyan’s cello. The first is called Rosa, and it’s quite striking in its beauty. <<>>

Veteran Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira makes his appearance on a piece called Roy Allen which is dedicated to the late jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove. The song has a classic, joyful Brazilian samba beat. <<>>

The other piece with a wordless performance with the cello is Bach’s Cello Suite no. 1, in two parts, Minuets I and II. The first part is mostly a cappella and beautifully performed. <<>> While the second half brings in the cello and a what sounds like a lute. <<>>

The album ends with the David Bowie cover, No Plan which was from Bowie’s posthumously released last EP. Again, the arrangement is imbued with creative instrumental textures, mixing rock-influenced drums, with the cello and acoustic guitar, along with some ethereal sonic treatments.

Gretchen Parlato’s new release Flor is an outstanding album that shows the versatility of the jazz-based singer with highly creative and eclectic arrangements. Her superb vocals make this kind of high-wire musical amalgam possible, and every track has something distinctive going for it. Looking at the basic instrumentation on paper – guitar, cello and percussion, it’s remarkable the breadth of musical colors that emerge, and the choice of material is also quite imaginative.

Our grade for sound quality it an A-minus. The mix is nicely done, Ms. Parlato’s vocals are well recorded, and the use of atmospheric effects is quite tasteful and further enhances the music. Unfortunately, the recording was over-compressed, cranking everything up loud, when the arrangements call for subtlety and dynamics. It certainly is not the first time a recording was spoiled by trying to compete is some kind of the loudness war.

Vocalists with jazz backgrounds have becoming increasingly wide-ranging and eclectic in their stylistic approach and repertoire. Gretchen Parlato on her new release is a superb example.

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