Wednesday, June 29, 2011

FIJM 2011 - Gretchen Parlato (L'Astral)

Since her two sold-out shows at the Savoy last year, Gretchen Parlato has ascended the ranks of notoriety from being considered a "singer's singer" to a more widely-acclaimed rising jazz star. In fact, her manager, Karen Kennedy, said "A lot has changed in the past year!" All the change was evident in Parlato's stunning set at L'Astral.

Her latest album, The Lost and Found, finds her moving towards the hip-hop and modern soul-inflected sound that marked moments of her previous record, In a Dream. The set followed suit. Surrounded by her extended musical family of Aaron Parks on piano and keyboard, Alan Hampton on bass (with cameos on guitar and voice), and Jamire Williams on drums, she opened with "Within Me" and "Holding Back The Years," bridged by a subdued Williams drum interlude. The next two songs, "Butterfly" and "Juju," were linked by an almost architecturally-crafted bass solo from Hampton. Parlato and crew were the epitome of hushed intensity. Their power came not from volume, but from drawing the listener in to a very intimate and focused degree. In Parlato's one vocal solo, on "Juju," she recalled Wayne Shorter's soprano sax playing of recent years, with carefully crafted statements and choosing her places in the music. Williams has matured by a remarkable degree since I heard him with Christian Scott a few years ago - he displayed his vast amount of technique not by flash but by his precise dynamic control. He is one of the leading practitioners of the MPC/drum-programming inspired grooves that have been adopted in modern jazz, but he widened his sound to blend with Parks. Parks can play like a sample, à la Glasper, as he showed on the closing "How We Love," but generally his sensibility is broader and more organic. His comping enveloped Parlato's voice as it ranged from her trademark hush to a more powerful upper register than I've ever heard from her.

Parlato hasn't totally abandoned the jazz, Brazilian, and African-inspired sounds of her previous repertoire. She led the groove of "Juju" on caxixi, and played these West African balls on Paulinho da Viola's "Alô alô" (and yes, many double entendres were made - "I need to get a new pair of balls, these are busted"). Immediately after "Alô, alô," she and Parks performed an absolutely gorgeous rendition of "Spring is Here," with Parks' silken touch and sensitive reharmonization framing Parlato's tender expression of the lyric. As was the case at Savoy, Gretchen Parlato is not afraid of using the tropes of the "jazz singer" for her own purposes. The band vamped in on "Within Me" as her entrance and on "How We Love" as her exit, giving a slight dramatic arc to the show without it being trite.

Their loudly demanded encore comprised two songs that are extremely important to me on a personal level: Djavan's "Flor de lis" and Stevie Wonder's "I Can't Help It." For the former, Djavan was the first Brazilian musician I ever heard and of whom I became a devoted fan. For the latter, I learned that song at the hands of its composer two years ago. They did both songs an exceeding amount of justice (and Jamire Williams has a deep samba feel). I was too busy shivering with goosebumps to make any further notes.

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