Gretchen Parlato: more than just a jazz singer

Vivian Tse
Vivian Tse - [email protected]
Gretchen Parlato: more than just a jazz singer

Jazz singer Gretchen Parlato's first concert in Sweden is special for a number of reasons, least of all because her maternal grandfather was Swedish.


Parlato kicks things off with her sultry voice and unique interpretations of older and newer classics on Stage 1 at the Stockholm Jazz Festival at Skeppsholmen this year on Thursday afternoon.

The 34-year-old Los Angeles native grew up in a household and extended family where everyone was involved in the arts and entertainment industries. Her father is a jazz bassist, while her mother is a web designer and musician who helped Parlato put up her first website in the mid-1990s.

Her maternal grandfather Caleb Frisk grew up in Hassela, southwest of Sundsvall, and moved to Chicago when he was in his 20s. He was a recording engineer who built his own studio and home and recorded The Beatles and Ella Fitzgerald.

"We did our own research before the trip," Parlato told The Local. "He died when I was 15."

He met her grandmother when she was hosting a radio show in the 1940s.

"Growing up, my grandmother played Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan in the house," Parlato recalled.

Those were not the only musical influences Parlato was exposed to by her family. Her paternal grandfather Charlie Parlato was a trumpet player and singer who performed with the Lawrence Welk orchestra.

Parlato has also received a comprehensive arts education throughout her schooling. While attending an arts high school, music became "not just a hobby, but a career."

"It was a thrill and I thought, 'I have to do this,'" Parlato recalled. "In junior high, I was really into theatre and acting. I chose music instead on a whim. I've always loved performing. I have a silly side, I love putting on wigs."

Parlato relocated to New York seven years ago, leaving LA for the first time after completing a degree in ethnomusicology in jazz studies at UCLA and becoming the first vocalist to be accepted into the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance's two-year program.

"I wasn't the first female. There was a female pianist, but we became like a family. It was a love-hate relationship," said Parlato. "There was a lot of soul-searching. It felt like therapy. You become vulnerable and feel very overwhelmed, getting deep into your own issues. I'm thankful for the opportunity."

It was also here where she formally met Wayne Shorter, whom she has performed with and whose wife Carolina she knew while growing up. Unfortunately for Parlato, she will miss his performance at the Jazz Festival on Saturday evening since she is heading back to the US on Friday morning for a performance in northern California on Sunday.

After winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition in 2004, Parlato used her winnings to record her first self-titled album the following year.

In August, her second album "In a Dream" was released, two months after the death of Michael Jackson. Among the songs on the album are a cover of Jackson's Stevie Wonder-penned hit "I Can't Help It," on which she is backed by vocals and guitar by guitarist Lionel Loueke.

"The album was recorded in December and mixed and mastered in the winter," Parlato told The Local. "It was totally coincidental."

Another song on the album, "Weak," first released in 1993 by SWV, is a piece she likens to a "standard" from when she grew up and demonstrates her open-mindedness to other musical genres while allowing fans of soul, R&B and pop to become acquainted with her.

She also sings in Portuguese for "Doralice," having studied the language in college and paying tribute to her love for Brazilian music. However, she will not be singing in a second language on her upcoming release when she heads back to the recording studio in August, where she will record her own works for the first time.

"I'm doing more lyric writing. It's opening doors for myself," Parlato told The Local. "It's a newer thing for me. I've been writing lyrics for 10 years, but music for only five. I blocked that because I'm such a perfectionist. I sing such perfect songs, so the writing has to be that good."

As to whether she prefers performing or recording, she likes both: connecting with a live audience through the spontaneity of music, while also perfecting and producing an album and capturing the texture of sound and essentially trying to record the sound of a live show.

Among her musical inspirations are Bobby McFerrin, whose works she first learned of through "Don't Worry Be Happy," before discovering his career and how he uses his voice as an instrument.

"It's amazing what he's capable of," observed Parlato. "It's not always lyrics and it's not traditional. Anything's possible. He trusts what he does and takes risks.

Among newer Swedish artists, the voice of Yukimi Nagano from Gothenburg act Little Dragon impresses her. Ahead of the summer tour season, which will take her to Molde, Norway next month, Parlato squeezes in private voice lessons, workshops and master classes at schools around her rehearsals.

At the Jazz Festival, she comes equipped as a quartet, with a pianist/keyboardist, bassist and drummer in tow. As her name becomes increasingly known, she welcomes the potential to become a household name, but for now, is grateful for all she has accomplished so far in her career.


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