Gretchen Parlato: Butterfly
Gretchen Parlato (vocals, handclaps)
In a Dream (Obliqsound 107)
Composed by Herbie Hancock, Bennie Maupin and Jean Hancock.
Recorded: New York, September 16 and December 17-18, 2008
Rating: 97/100 (learn more)
Since taking first place in the Thelonious Monk Jazz Vocals Competition back in 2004, Gretchen Parlato has been making believers out of a growing group of admirers—in whose ranks you will find Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Kenny Barron, among others. The usual next step for an artist of this stature is a blowout, overproduced CD filled with famous guest artists and fluffy arrangements. Instead Parlato attempts something far riskier here, and the results are simply stunning.
This is one of the most under-produced, intimate jazz vocal recordings you will ever hear—it sounds like it was conceived in a NY apartment building with thin walls where the musicians need to play at a whisper so neighbors won't complain. But Parlato blossoms in the quiescence, delivering a pristine performance that refuses to follow the predictable path at any point. Her intonation is flawless, as it needs to be in this setting, where there is no place for a singer to hide. There's no bass, no keyboards, and only the singer's handclapping for percussion . . . but Lionel Loueke is there at every breath and phrase, matching Parlato's singing perfectly, yet also challenging her with his own unexpected twists and turns. He sometimes seems on the brink of entering some strange polytonal set of alternative changes, but Parlato dances over the turbulence like the lepidoptera commemorated in the song title.
This track, and the entire recording, are built on what the music industry always promises but rarely delivers: a singer with a breathtakingly fresh approach and a daring personal style that stands out from the crowd. This CD is in frequent rotation on my home sound system, and will probably stay there for quite some time. I'm not sure if the general public is ready for Gretchen Parlato—music like this is usually kept off the airwaves of mainstream radio stations—but in a way she reminds me of some other understated singers (Astrud Gilberto, Chet Baker, Kenny Rankin) who became surprise crossover stars. So who knows?
Reviewer: Ted Gioia