Gretchen Parlato – In A Dream (Album Review)

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Gretchen Parlato is a name that has popped up time and again this Autumn. Whether it is being featured and reviewed in World Music magazines or performing as part of last month’s London Jazz Festival, Miss Parlato has been a busy bee promoting her latest release, In A Dream, the follow up to her self-titled 2005 debut.

Parlato’s delicate mezzo-soprano belongs to the Bebel Gilberto/Diana Krall school of vocals; a pleasing, feather-light presence hovering over each track. On In A Dream her airborne voice glides through compositions penned by Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock (“Butterfly”) and Duke Ellington (“Azure”). What Parlato’s voice might lack in range and projection she makes up for in versatility. Whereas the first album leaned more towards Samba and Hi-Life, Parlato’s sophomore has a more experimental/fusion feel.

Samples of Gretchen as a toddler, displaying a musical inclination even through her baby babbling, are littered throughout the album. Her tongue and oral cavity form some of the record’s instrumentation as she and a mysterious male collaborator cluck, grunt and tut away- creating all kinds of percussive oddities with their mouths.

In addition, the rhythmic complexity of some of the arrangements on In A Dream and her curious, distinctive phraseology show off the breadth of Parlato’s musicality. No better is this demonstrated than on her peculiar but highly engaging interpretations of Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It” and SWV’s “Weak”. Parlato deserves nothing but praise for her genuinely original twist on two of the most covered and open-mic massacred songs of the past 30 years.

Starkly arranged, In A Dream is an accomplished follow-up album. Apart from the occasions when the guttural oral improvisations become a little too obtrusive in their repetition, Parlato’s second offering makes for enjoyable, inoffensive listening- as suitable for pensive winter evenings indoors and out of the cold as it is for a sunny day spent snoozing on the beach.

However there is always something that screams ‘best served live’ with artists such as Parlato. The attempt to catch some of their magic on wax almost always leads to a somewhat muted, even dull affair. It’s as if to contain the artist on record is to take them out of their natural habitat and listen to them underperform. I am not sure if this is intrinsically down to the nature of Parlato’s craft or that some of the album’s material, if not for hers and the musicians’ innovation, is just not that memorable. Bar a few worthy exceptions, the songs on In A Dream drift almost indistinguishably into the other and although pleasant, hardly set the ears alight.

In some regards an album that sounds as if it could be so much more, is ideal; after all, bona fide artistes should always gear themselves more towards the live performance, surpassing anything they could deliver in the studio. I have no doubt that an evening with Gretchen and her band would be a highly impressive affair. You only have to watch footage online to realise this is the case. Still, whilst waiting for Miss Parlato to come to a town near me again, I can’t help thinking that as clever as it is, In A Dream is only telling half the story of what this Los Angeles native can do – and half is not enough.

Tolita

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