The former Valley Girl from LA says, "This is great because you are the first person (in an interview) to dive into this (her comedic side). There are sides of me that only certain people see. I am still not the kind of person that will show you all the sides of my personality. It might be certain people in my life that bring that out. I have always found some sort of relief in humor, acting and performing. That (the video) was all improvisation and based on extreme caricatures of family members (she is laughing). If you put a wig on me, I just become a different person. I am still trying to think of how to incorporate the wild, humorous side of me into my music. Before I became a singer, I always liked being in drama class and theater."
It seems that Parlato was destined for the stage from an early age, "Every single person in my family is an artist in some way, whether as a performer, involved in visual arts, as a graphic designer, or something in the entertainment field. There is no question that it was a part of everyday life," she says.
Parlato’s first encounter with the stage came at age thirteen when she auditioned for a major role in the musical Bye Bye Birdie. She fell in love with the stage and the feeling that she had while she was performing. At the suggestion of one of her teachers, she auditioned as a requirement for entrance into the LA County High School for the Arts. She says that when she first considered auditioning, she still had not made up her mind whether she wanted to be in the theater program or the music program. She admits that she considered the requirements for the drama program to be too tough so in her own words, opted for the lazy way out and decided to audition for the music program.
"I sang, was accepted into that program, and it really changed my life," Parlato says.
Yes, that decision did indeed change Parlato’s life. The twenty something vocalist has garnered accolades such as, "a singer with a deep, almost magical connection to the music," from Herbie Hancock.
Wayne Shorter with whom she will appear in Paris at September’s La Villette Jazz Festival cite de la musique Paris, observed, "When Gretchen scats, it’s almost like Nat Cole playing the piano, and then when she sings, it’s like him singing, so can cover both parts."
She is in demand as a vocalist for the projects of some of today’s most respected jazz musicians, performing on guitarist Lionel Loueke’s Virgin Forest, and astounding listeners with her emotive and ethereal soprano vocals on pieces such as "Insensatez," recorded on bass player Morrie Louden’s CD Time Piece.
In 2005, Parlato’s self-titled CD was released to critical acclaim, which is not surprising considering four years earlier in 2001, she was the first vocalist accepted into the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance.
Her ability to act as a conduit between the lyricist and the listener begins long before Parlato steps in front of a studio or stage microphone. "Every single song that I sing, every lyric that I sing, has to connect with something in my personal life, so I am very selective in the songs that I (record and perform). In doing so, it allows me to be completely connected, emotional, honest, genuine and vulnerable with every single note and word that comes out of my mouth, and my being. I pick songs that relate to something in my life. I can tell you the exact story in my life and how (the event) relates to that piece. Every song tells its own story and I think that a key for a singer is to find a song that you really connect to. When you are honest about it and you really feel that you can give that to the listener, they will feel that too," says Parlato.
Becoming vulnerable and open, so that her emotions can infuse her music, is not something that has always come easily to Parlato.
"I used to close my eyes when I sang (in front of an audience). I would sit on a stool and get really inside myself. It takes maturity to really open up. When people respond to the music and emotion, that means I am doing my part to mature in that way. The greatest compliment to me as an artist is for somebody to say that they feel something when they hear my music. If you see a painting and it makes you feel something in your body, I think that is the whole point and the beauty of art.
Gretchen Parlato remains grateful for where she finds herself today. She says, "When you find something that is yours, like my voice, that becomes your passion, you can really lose yourself. All the different sides of my personality can come out through the music. I feel very lucky to be an artist."
As Palato matures as an artist, she is pushing the boundaries and incorporating more material that is original into her performances. "I like to use Rhodes, upright bass, electric bass, piano and a drum set, instead of percussion," she says.
The singer describes her music, "It is still subtle, understated and passionate. To me, there should always be the elements of depth, soul and groove that the band (creates) and then I can do what I do on top of that. With the change in instrumentation, it is pushing me to go into different places and to use my voice in different ways."
"When I was at UCLA, I think that it was (jazz guitarist) Kenny Burrell who said to me, ‘You always want to play with musicians who challenge you.’ It is not to say that they are better than you are, but that you want to be challenged and pushed by your band," says Parlato.
Continuing to run with this theme she says, "Definitely, Lionel Loueke is somebody that I feel connected to, but you also never know what he is going to do or where it is going to take you."
Producer Bob Sadin (Virgin Forest) is another person who creatively inspires Parlato. "He is so passionate about everything. When he hears something that he thinks is beautiful, he just screams and jumps up and down like a little kid. He has that primal reaction to music and he will yell stuff out. That is passion, and that is what art is," says Parlato.
Jazz fans in New York can look for Parlato as she performs regularly at the 55 Bar and The Zinc Bar. As her stature has increased, so have the size of the venues as she performs occasionally at icons such as the Blue Note Jazz Club, Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola at the Lincoln Center, and the Jazz Standard.