Singer Gretchen Parlato

The award-winning jazz vocalist sheds light on her current projects, and sings a song from her Grammy-nominated album, “Live in NYC.”

Gretchen Parlato is a Los Angeles native who relocated to New York City twelve years ago after studying ethnomusicology & jazz at UCLA. She was the first vocalist admitted to the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz Performance. Her fourth album, "Live in NYC," is a CD/DVD set featuring nine tracks including a refreshing take on Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly.” The album earned Gretchen a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album.


Tavis: Gretchen Parlato is a Los Angeles native, but her fourth album is actually called “Live in NYC”. The CD features nine tracks and has earned her a Grammy nomination this year for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Congratulations.

Gretchen Parlato: Thank you.

Tavis: How does it feel the first time around?

Parlato: It’s an honor. Very humbled. It’s great.

Tavis: How’d you find out about the nomination? Were you called? Who told you?

Parlato: Yeah. I was home. I got a text from Kendrick Scott and Taylor Eigsti, both musicians on the CD, and they said, “Whoa! Congrats!” and I didn’t know what they were talking about.

But I thought, wait, this is the day that they make those announcements. So I went online and saw the listing and it’s just a surprise and I’m very, very happy.

Tavis: Taylor’s actually with you today. He’s going to perform with you on the song you’re going to do.

Parlato: Yes.

Tavis: You doing “Butterfly”?

Parlato: Yes.

Tavis: I’m so glad you’re doing that one. Could I just tell you, when I saw your performance–it’s on YouTube, of course, on the internet. When I first saw that, I said who is this Gretchen Parlato? I mean, the way you chose to start the song and the way you bring it in and the performance was just beautiful. I assume you like the song.

Parlato: I do, yeah.

Tavis: Herbie Hancock.

Parlato: Herbie Hancock, and the lyrics are by his sister, Jean Hancock. She passed away some years ago, but he showed me those lyrics when I was in the Thelonius Monk Institute. He was one of the artists that came to work with us.

I loved it. I fell in love with that piece and, you know, thought let’s do something with this. Honor the original in some way, but, you know, what can we do that breaths some new life and tell us our own story, yeah.

Tavis: I’m glad you mentioned his sister. Herbie was just here in that very chair…

Parlato: He was [laugh]?

Tavis: He was just here in December for his book, “Possibilities”. In the book, he tells the story of his sister and how she wanted to be in the music business and the tragic story of her death. But he just literally was telling that story about Jean not too long ago and I’d forgotten that she did in fact write the lyrics to that track.

Parlato: Yeah. A few different pieces of his, I think “Maiden Voyage” she wrote as well. But, yeah, I mean, the original is great. Again, it’s like whenever I do any kind of cover, if it’s a jazz piece or pop cover, I want to honor the original and make sure that the bulk and the juice of what makes that so great is there, but take it to a different place.

Tavis: Since you mentioned the Institute, Thelonius Monk, it never ceases to amaze me the great work they do in that institute because, if you get high marks and high regards out of that institute, it’s pretty clear that you’re going to make some headway in this business.

Because they really put a wonderful–how might I put this–a wonderful imprimatur on these young artists who have something to offer the world. What was the experience like for you being a part of the institute?

Parlato: That was one of the best most prominent transitions, I think, in my musical life. I was 25, so that’s already a good time in your life where you’re just soaking everything up. And the audition is amazing and terrifying because you’re sitting this close to Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Terence Blanchard and just singing with the rhythm section. You know, that’s the live audition.

I thankfully made it into the ensemble and you’re just in a classroom setting or you’re on tour or performing with the same musicians, the same band, for two years. So you’re really focused on yourself, on your music, but also individually, I think you go through a transformation. So you’re a better person on the way out.

Tavis: Speaking of butterflies, how do you not get intimidated when Wayne Shorter and Terence Blanchard and Herbie Hancock are staring you in the face?

Parlato: I closed my eyes [laugh].

Tavis: I guess that helps [laugh]. Just don’t look at them, huh?

Parlato: I’m like I see you, I know you’re here, I feel your energy. I do that a lot. I mean, people that know me know that I tend to get inside and it takes a lot to come up and, you know, open up. But that’s what I did. It’s like, all right, let me just treat this as if it’s just, you know, I’m singing by myself at a gig, at a jam session, at a rehearsal, and we’re just making it happen.

Tavis: I guess if Miles Davis could turn his back to us, you can close your eyes.

Parlato: Yeah [laugh].

Tavis: You’re okay. Tell me about this project, “Live in NYC”.

Parlato: Well, it was recorded on the 10-year anniversary of moving from L.A. to New York City. You know, all the times and years of touring with these bands, I always wanted to document what we were doing.

And, again, the word transformation comes up from the studio versions of these pieces to what they ended up coming–you know, transforming into live was an interesting thing.

If anyone was a fan of what we do, you could kind of compare the studio version to something that’s more open and spacious. I wanted to just document that and almost give back to the fans that have supported us for so long.

Tavis: I was impressed by the range of material that you covered. I mean, you got Simply Red “Holding Back the Years” and then I’ve never heard anybody cover SWV. I always liked that song, “Weak” [laugh].

Parlato: Me too.

Tavis: But you did something special with it, though.

Parlato: Yeah. I mean, that song came out when I was in high school. You know, I think anyone knows whatever music is happening at that time in your life, it affects you. So when I moved to New York, I met Robert Glasper and I knew that he…

Tavis: A great artist himself.

Parlato: A great artist. I knew that he would be someone that would know how to rearrange this piece, again, like making sure that we honor the original, but do something new with it.

So he helped me to arrange and really he created the vamp that rearranged the whole piece. You know, I always say he laughed, he chuckled, when I said I wanted to cover SWV [laugh].

Tavis: I would have chuckled too [laugh].

Parlato: Then he’s like, okay, let’s see what we can do. You know, that’s been a favorite piece that I love to do.

Tavis: As I think about it–I could have begun our conversation here. I’ll close on this. I guess in some ways, you didn’t have much choice but to be in this business.

Parlato: That’s true.

Tavis: Your father, your grandfather? Tell us about your father and your grandfather.

Parlato: Well, my father, David Parlato, he’s a bassist. His father, Charlie Parlato…

Tavis: Who’d your daddy play with? Don’t sell your daddy short now.

Parlato: Well, many people–Frank Zappa’s kind of the one that people know mostly. And his father, Charlie Parlato, he’s a singer and a trumpet player. He played on the Lawrence Welk Show for many years.

And then on my mother’s side too, her father was a recording engineer. Aunts and uncles are very talented, you know, in the art. I don’t know. Even just music was in there, but art in general. We were always around it and I agree it’s in my blood whether I went into it as a profession or just loved to do it.

Tavis: Sounds like destiny to me.

Parlato: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: The project from Gretchen Parlato is called “Live in NYC” nominated for a Grammy this year, her first time. We’ll see what happens on Grammy night. But it’s a beautiful thing to be in company of persons nominated for the highest award that the music industry gives.

Up next, Gretchen performs “Butterfly” with Taylor Eigsti. And following Gretchen’s performance, we’ll be joined by Grammy nominee, Antonique Smith. Here comes Gretchen. Stay with us.


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Last modified: February 10, 2015 at 1:15 pm