By DERON JOHNSON
Despite being a primarily live art form, the contemporary jazz live album carries a certain stigma with it. Often it finds the artist and her band stretching the boundaries of their music, resulting in long tracks with extended, seemingly unapproachable improvisations.
But the freedom a performer experiences on the bandstand isn't something that can often be captured in the recording studio. Jazz pieces are never played the same way twice, and the live album offers a chance to bottle the raw creative power of its performers in a definitive performance. That's exactly what Gretchen Parlato's new CD/DVD "Live in NYC" has to offer: fresh, definitive performances of material spanning her entire repertoire.
A recent addition to the Manhattan School of Music's faculty, Parlato is a singer at the forefront of contemporary vocal jazz performance. Her last release "The Lost and Found" was awarded iTunes Vocal Jazz Album of the Year in addition to receiving more than 30 international awards. Half of the tunes on this recording are borrowed from that album, while the others can be found on her 2009 release "In a Dream."
Parlato's voice is just as stunning live as it is in the studio, demonstrating her complete control over her breathy, beautiful tone. Noteworthy is her performance of the Brazilian "Alo Alo," where she combines hand percussion with natural vocal effects to recreate the Latin rhythms of the original.
While continuing the percussion with her hands, she performs the whole tune accompanied only by her band slapping and banging on their respective instruments. Her pitch control over this challenging melody ensures she won't just be heard as a pretty voice.
Her band is a story in itself, featuring some of the most in-demand players on the jazz scene. Pianist Taylor Eigsti, a bandleader himself, provides most of the improvisations on this record, taking over after Parlato handles the main melody. His playing is incredibly tasteful, and you won't find him overplaying or forcing himself into the spotlight. Parlato has two different rhythm sections on this recording, the first being Alan Hampton on bass and Mark Guiliana on drums and the second finds Kendrick Scott behind the kit and Burniss Earl Travis II on bass.
Somehow the four musicians present a unified rhythmic sound, and you'll find it nearly impossible to tell who's playing on which tracks. Both rhythm sections can seamlessly switch between a traditional jazz swing style and a modern hip-hop and rhythm and blues sound, a necessity when playing with Gretchen, whose song selection knows no boundaries. She opens the album with Herbie Hancock's "Butterfly" only to follow it up with "All That I Can Say" by Lauryn Hill, then continuing into the aforementioned Brazilian "Alo Alo."
These performances are truly inspired, with more imagination and stronger dynamics than the original recordings. Many of them include brand new sections and grooves, most notably the closing track "Better Than."
Opening with a slow, spacious R&B vibe similar to the original, it progresses into a loud crashing unison melody in which Parlato gets the crowd involved. The track closes with the sound of the audience singing and the band accompanying, making Parlato just another voice in the crowd. She's handing this performance over to us, and what a gift it is.
5 stars out of 5.
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