The Isthmus Jazz Series double bill featuring the Gretchen Parlato duo and the Esperanza Spalding trio is your chance to check out some ascending stars of the 21st-century New York sound. Parlato and Spalding have very short track records alongside legends who've played previous Jazz Series shows, like McCoy Tyner, Eddie Palmieri, Dianne Reeves and Paquito D'Rivera. But the pair of young heirs to the legacy of bebop, hard bop, post-bop and Latin jazz who'll take the Wisconsin Union Theater stage on Feb. 15 are proof positive that America's definitive art form has escaped the formidable jaws of commercial radio and hip-hop culture. That's good news.
Parlato is Herbie Hancock's and Wayne Shorter's protégé; Spalding's main mentor is sax master Joe Lovano. Parlato sings; Spalding plays bass. Parlato's style is understated; Spalding's is spunky. Each has one CD out and another in the works. They don't regularly gig together, but they're friends who've gotten together to jam for fun. They've done a double bill or two in New York, but this is their first dual tour.
Here's what else you need to know. Parlato, 32, was born to a family of artists. Her father, Dave Parlato, played bass in the '70s with Frank Zappa, the mother of invention. So it's no surprise that Parlato almost chose comedic acting. "Humor is great medicine. Life is funny. I'm trying to bring that side out onstage - to show that performing jazz doesn't always have to be so serious."
Parlato's a very serious young performer, but there's a hint of sly humor in her easygoing style. Singing's always been fun for her, she says, but she didn't settle on voice till she discovered her mother's vinyl copy of bossa nova classic Getz/Gilberto from 1964.
"I was 13 or 14, and I fell in love with Astrud Gilberto's vocal style. That was what started me on this path."
Schooled at Los Angeles High School of the Arts, UCLA and the highly specialized Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, Parlato won that institution's international jazz vocals competition in 2004, to accolades from Hancock and Shorter.
"Just the fact that players like that know me and like what I do is completely humbling," she says. "Jazz is such a broad word for a genre of music. Artists like Herbie and Wayne haven't been stagnant, they haven't tried to keep jazz inside one box. They know the only way it can live is if it moves forward. I'm grateful to have artists like them influencing us and taking us on tour."
I ask Parlato to list her other influences. Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, Johnny Hartman, Bobby McFerrin, she says, along with Milwaukee-born, L.A.-based jazz singer Tierney Sutton, who was her private voice teacher in L.A. You can hear their connection. Sutton's style is a shade darker than Parlato's, but both possess supple, nuanced musicality that nets comparisons to Frank Sinatra.
All of Parlato's heroes have a knack for bossa nova, but she bends hers into a deep-seated signature style. There's a pair of Jobim tunes on her self-titled '05 debut CD, but there's carioca in her almost smoky "Skylark" and her balmy take on a pair of Wayne Shorter's '60s post-bop tunes, "Juju" and "Footprints," for which she penned lyrics.
Benin-born Lionel Loueke, the other part of Parlato's duo, sounds like he's playing thumb piano on that track. "Lionel has a lot of pedals to get different textures and loops," Parlato says. "What you're hearing that sounds like mbira is a strip of paper between his guitar strings. He's fascinating."
Parlato's natural Brazilian swing adds diaspora notes to Loueke's gentle "Nonvignon," a West African tune.
Loueke, also a Monk Institute alum, often fuses his traditional Benin sensibilities with post-bop. He tours regularly with Herbie Hancock; Parlato and Hancock both appear on his third album, Virgin Forest (2006). Parlato's broader network includes rising young piano whiz and Blue Note recording artist Aaron Parks, who plays on her album; sometimes she gigs with his four-piece ensemble.
Parlato's not talking about her new CD. "I can't say much - it's still in negotiation - but I've been writing lyrics and collaborating on songs with other musicians," she says. "I've got a lot of original material. I'll always throw in a handful of standards - rework them in a fresh way - and there's always a Brazilian or African color, definitely."
It's safe to bet that Loueke'll play on that album. "Lionel and I are excited about coming out to Madison. We'll do a couple of songs off my first recording, but also a lot of new material we're planning to use. He sings, and I do a little percussion - we have a lot of material for just the two of us to do together."
Spalding, born in '84, is Gen Y to Parlato's Gen X. Unlike Parlato, Spalding, who hails from Portland, Ore., was a high school dropout. And there's this - some of the greatest jazz singers are women, but how many women can you name who've made their mark playing jazz instruments? There've been a (very) few, but Spalding's standup bass has plenty of glass-ceiling cachet. Plus she's got youth, attitude and an Angela Davis 'fro. Her sound's still young, but she definitely swings.
"The bass just happened," Spalding says. "I was just about to quit high school. They'd bought a bass and put it in the music room. I was skipping class and I picked it up and started playing. It fell into place. I didn't have any plans to be a musician. It was like, 'this is fun!' I'd go in there and figure out how to play generic lines I'd heard other people play, and that's how I learned to get a sound out of it."
Spalding jumped from those first riffs right onto the fast track. The Portland scene's hot, she says. "There are so many amazing jazz musicians out there. I didn't know much, but I started doing pickup when local jazz groups needed a bass player. Those cats were all listening to musicians they loved when they were young, like Eddie Harris and Charlie Parker. I learned a lot from playing with them, and from listening to their old records."
Spalding worked with various Portland bands, including an instrumental hip-hop outfit called Black Science Tribe. She enrolled at Portland State, where a music prof encouraged her to apply to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. Just two years after first stumbling across the bass she was accepted, with full scholarship. On graduation, she was invited to join Berklee's faculty.
She also freelances a lot - she's played with Regina Carter, Dave Samuels and Pat Metheny - but senior Berklee prof Joe Lovano's her main man.
"It's been Joe from the get, and it's Joe now. He's really somethin' else. I've been playing with him for three years, and it's always amazing. He's always writing new music - it's so special, it's never just a gig. He's extremely creative. I always play fresh and new for him. He's the cat who intrigues me the most."
Spalding's CD, Junjo, on the Barcelona label Ayva, features Boston-based expat Cuban players Francisco Mela on drums and Aruán Ortiz on piano. Junjo's a mixed bag. The trio does post-bop justice to Jimmy Rowles' classic "The Peacocks" and Chick Corea's "Humpty Dumpty." But an overdose of rhythmic changes fragments the title track, a bossa/bop Spalding wrote. Her soft, boppy arrangement of Argentinian songstress Liliana Herrero's guitar-based, folkloric "Cantora de Yala" is ingenious, but her Spanish isn't strong enough to get her through (though there's a mysterious YouTube clip of her doing a radically different, much funkier, brashly confident take on what's ostensibly the same tune, with English lyrics).
Spalding's distancing herself from that first album. It's nothing like what she's doing now, she says. "It was a group album that people thought should be my debut, even though it's not really my record."
She's composing most of her own material these days. "I don't know where it comes from. I listen to so many different things, I never know which one is gonna pop out. It's not just jazz. I don't have one major influence. Sometimes I hear some pop or folk song that blows my mind. I've been listening to a lot of R&B and hip-hop lately. And I just recorded a new CD three weeks ago that has a lot of jazz and Brazilian influences."
The new disc's still being mixed, but Spalding works with fellow Berklee alum Leo Genovese on piano and Otis Brown III on drums - both, like Spalding, often tour with Joe Lovano. We'll get a taste of the trio's newly recorded tunes, plus whatever Spalding decides best fits her mood.
Parlato and Spalding plan to appear in each other's sets Friday night, or to jam together in between. There's a lot of promise in this show and, I'm glad to report, in the future of jazz.