Gretchen Parlato Brings Serene Jazz to RISE Music Series

Gretchen Parlato

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum presented its fourth concert in the RISE Music Series on April 26 in its cube-shaped concert hall, Calderwood Hall. Berklee College student Mirella Costa opened for renowned jazz singer Gretchen Parlato. Parlato has studied music most of her life, beginning at age 2 and formally continuing at a high school for the arts in Los Angeles. Mirella Costa, a Brazilian native, is currently training at Berklee through a scholarship with the Latin Grammy Foundation, from which she is the only Brazilian receiving funding.

Costa’s voice is deep and full, able to hit high notes for long durations of time with precise intonation. Her set began with only vocals and a bongo drum. As the bass and piano were incorporated, however, the initially tribal sound began to include a variety of genres—jazz, bossa nova, samba—that is characteristic of Brazilian music. At first, the instruments were too loud, obscuring her voice, which was already difficult to understand because the all of the lyrics she sang were in Portuguese. Soon enough, the vocals became distinct from the instruments. She delivered her lyrics like a dialogue, singing expressively to the audience without ever really breaking eye contact. For her entire set, although it was only four songs, Costa never stopped dancing on stage—she clearly enjoyed listening to the music as much as she enjoyed singing.

“When people listen to me … they don’t understand the language, but they can understand what they lyrics say through my interpretation, through my feelings,” she said. “I think being here made me realize this. Being here has made me proud of who I am.”

The Brazilian singer radiated gratitude and humility, grateful for the opportunity to study at Berklee and perform with Parlato, an inspiration of hers, and thankful for the audience. She wasn’t nervous or insecure, but very comfortable and energetic on stage, incorporating her native culture into her performances and embracing her Brazilian roots.

Parlato, too, performs with a confidence similar to Costa’s, but also with an additional elegance that comes with her experience and recognition. She presented herself in a relaxed and comfortable manner, setting the tone for a much more mellow performance than Costa’s lively show. Her voice is soft and breathy, often drowned out by her band’s passionate playing. Not far into the first song, a sound technician snuck onto the floor to adjust her microphone, but to little avail. Calderwood Hall, in the shape of a tall rectangular prism, was constructed to magnify the acoustics, which is why the instruments project so well.

She often supplemented and began her songs with non-traditional sounds vocally and physically—softly clapping her hands, lightly pounding her chest, and clicking her tongue, she integrated a kind of baby-beatboxing into some of her songs. None of the songs Parlato performed became very intense—light, tender emotions were much more present in her music, projecting a general sound that combined traditional elements of jazz with the dreamy feeling of a lullaby. The audience was entranced by her mellow voice murmuring relaxing melody accompanied by a bass, drums, and a keyboard.

Parlato’s band was extremely talented. James Francies, her pianist and keyboardist, played many solos that the audience was truly in awe of. This was the first time Francies and Parlato had performed together, but they complemented one another very well, especially as they performed “What Does a Lion Say?,” which featured only vocals and the keyboard. Otis Brown III, her drummer, had a lot of energy that he expressed in his own playing and as he encouraged the other musicians in between songs and during their solos. On the bass, Burniss Travis kept the rhythm steady and ensured that the music always kept a soulful tone. These musicians were all remarkable performers, however, at times it didn’t seem like Parlato was the headliner—her band often overpowered her own voice, and their lengthy solos projected significantly more passion than her singing.

Still, the crowd was truly thrilled by both performances. Many couples, groups, and individuals ranging from college students to older couples attended, trickling into the venue until about 10 minutes after the show was scheduled to begin. The seating arrangement ensures there are no more than three rows of seats, allowing every performance to be held in an intimate and comfortable atmosphere. Despite some minor difficulties that prevented the audience from absorbing the singers’ voices completely clearly, all of the musicians were truly phenomenal performers, coming together for a comfortable and intimate concert.

Featured Image by Bradley Smart / Heights Editor