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Concert review

Jazz singer Parlato mesmerizes with dream-like voice

By Steve Greenlee
Globe Staff / October 16, 2009

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Gretchen Parlato's voice is a cello. It's a muted trumpet, a trombone. It's an alto saxophone. It's a small child crying out for her mother, a grown woman celebrating the pains of love. It's a conflux where hope, sensuality, and tragedy all merge.

Parlato, 33, who won the 2004 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition and just released a beguiling album, "In a Dream," is an ambitiously original singer with an understated approach. Her voice doesn't rise much above a whisper, and she barely opens her mouth when she sings. She softly moans some lyrics, stretches out individual syllables for two and three bars, and adds wordless vocals that are more like sax solos than scat. More than that, she appears to see herself less as a singer than a musician whose instrument happens to be her voice. She is a fully integrated member of her band.

Her interpretations of jazz standards and pop songs weave American forms with threads from around the world, particularly Latin and South America. Her show Thursday night at the Regattabar was utterly captivating. Backed by a stellar, international rhythm section — Cuban pianist Fabian Almazan, Nigerian-British bassist Michael Olatuja, and drummer Kendrick Scott, a Berklee graduate who grew up in Houston — Parlato (she's from LA) packed 11 rich performances into her set.

It was stunning from the outset. Wearing a tight black dress, hoop earrings, and a new wave hairdo, Parlato gently clapped her hands while uttering quiet noises, her lips slightly pursed. The band joined in, and gradually the sounds gathered and transformed themselves into an airy, vaguely Brazilian rendition of Herbie Hancock's "Butterfly." As she sang, she retreated into the lyrics, singing from the back of her throat, sucking in the words rather than spilling them forth. She sounded more horn than human.

Parlato makes everything her own, too. It was perfectly natural to hear her jazzy version of the forgotten 1992 R&B hit "Weak" followed by the bossa nova "Doralice" (a duet with drums on which she sang in Portuguese) and, later, her shuffling, almost rowdy reimagining of Bill Evans's "Blue in Green." Here's how spellbinding her set was: When she finished a heartbreakingly gorgeous reworking of Monk's "Ugly Beauty" (with lyrics), the crowd sat in transfixed silence for a good eight or nine seconds before applauding. For a singer, there is no higher praise.

Steve Greenlee can be reached at greenlee@globe.com

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