Subscribers to the thesis that a great jazz singer uses her voice in much the same way a horn player uses her instrument looking for evidence can point with assurance to the vocals of Gretchen Parlato. The pixie with the subdued breathy style is a singer who thinks like an instrumentalist. Live in NYC, her latest album, a set of nine previously recorded tunes revamped and recreated over the years, makes the point emphatically. The set is testimony to both Parlato’s musicianship and her creative growth.
Recorded over two days in the intimate setting of the Rockwood Music Hall, the album comes with a companion DVD featuring four of the songs, a visual record of the joy the singer takes in the music and her performance. It is almost as if at times she is transported not only by her own vocals, but by the work of her fellow musicians as well.
While she is accompanied throughout the set by Taylor Eigsti on piano and keyboard, she works with two different combinations on drums and bass. On five tracks Alan Hampton handles the bass, with Mark Guilliana on the drums; Burniss Earl Travis ll is bassist and Kendrick Scott is the drummer on the rest.
They open with the singer’s fluttering interpretation of Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly,” followed by Lauryn Hill’s “All That I Can Say” in a joint arrangement by Parlato and pianist Robert Glasper. “Alō Alō” gives the singer the opportunity to highlight her feel for Brazilian music, as it becomes a vehicle for a fantasy in percussion—Parlato playing a small set of shakers, and the rest of the band exploring the percussive possibilities of their instruments. The piece is even more impressive visually on the DVD.
Parlato’s arrangement of “Within Me” plays with a bit of drama, while the Glasper arrangement of “Holding Back the Years” has an almost fugue-like sound in parts. She performs Wayne Shorter’s “Juju” (for which she has written her own lyrics), and again joins with Glasper for an arrangement of SWV’s “Weak.” The set ends with her own composition, “Better Than” and a little help from the audience.
Listening to Gretchen Parlato live, it is clear why hers is one of the first names that comes up in any conversation about the best jazz vocalists working today. This is one lady who can sing.