The Art of Jazz series brings top-tier talent to the Albright-Knox, where audiences are impressed by the performers and musicians dig the ambience of the venue. Singer Gretchen Parlato was the latest artist to grace the hall and the last one for this season. If you’re a Western New York jazz fan and you missed the concert, the good news is that series producer Bruce Eaton has lined up an interesting batch of acts for next year, but the less-good news is that you missed this show.
It’s a good bet that Parlato’s family background helped shape her choice to become a jazz singer. Grandfather Charlie was born in Fredonia and worked as a session musician in Los Angeles recording studios before embarking on a 25-year stint in Lawrence Welk’s trumpet section.
Her father, Ben, worked as a bassist with the Don Ellis Orchestra, the Warne Marsh Quartet, and a couple of groups led by guitarist Gabor Szabo before touring and recording with Frank Zappa.
The singer’s own career is on an upward track. Since her win in the 2004 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition, she has recorded three albums as a leader and appeared in a supporting role on projects by Terence Blanchard, Lionel Loueke, Esperanza Spalding, Kenny Barron and Marcus Miller; jazz legends Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock have sung her praises.
Her set Saturday night included a nice mix of covers and originals sung in a voice that didn’t soar above the tunes as much as it rose deliberately in the mix. Parlato’s voice isn’t a powerful tool in the conventional sense, but the way she phrases words, her use of spacing and percussive effects mark her as an interesting performer and someone whose art is worth paying attention to.
The singer’s take on Hancock’s “Butterfly” found Parlato using her voice to take the place of the synthesizer riffs that form the “hook” for the tune, while her approach to Simply Red’s “Holding Back the Years” brought spontaneous applause from the audience mere seconds after she sang the opening bars.
While covers of other tunes offer a memory for listeners to grab onto, original material of worth offers new memories for the future and helps build a career. Much of the set featured Parlato wrapping her voice around syllables and stretching them across a wide range of emotions, focusing on sounds that float in the ether one moment and pluck beats from Afro-Brazilian roots the next.
On the other hand, works like “Still,” “If It Was” and her encore “Magnus” have that singer/songwriter vibe about them – none of them came off as “jazz” tunes, but they all exhibited the kind of musical architecture that one can build on to bring them more into the fold.
Her band was tight. Keyboard player Jason Lindner, drummer Mark Guiliana and guitarist/bassist/singer Alan Hampton have all got the chops one could hope for, and all of them are more than qualified to lead their own groups, especially Lindner, whose big-band arrangements are legendary in New York City.
One can only hope that they keep doing gigs together and that they come back to Buffalo someday.