Gretchen Parlato’s Black Cat performance Wednesday night wasn’t her first Bay Area gig since the advent of pandemic. The latest musician to join the SFJAZZ Collective, she toured and performed widely with the nonet last year as the group musically grappled with the seismic social shifts triggered by George Floyd’s murder. She was back at the SFJAZZ Center in March for the world premiere of saxophonist Chris Potter’s orchestral song cycle Sing to Me, which featured his sumptuous settings for poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar, Sapho, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and 15th-century Indian mystic Kabir. Potter said that her voice provided much of the project’s inspiration, and while the music was often strikingly beautiful, its shifting rhythms and overlapping lines required Parlato to constantly navigate intricate musical currents.
But at Black Cat she was back behind the wheel as a bandleader, singing material from her well-burnished repertory and her latest album, 2021’s Grammy Award-nominated Flor. Loose and in her element, she arranged songs on the fly, delivering a welcome demonstration of the singular skillset that made her such a ubiquitous force on the New York scene circa 2010. Now living in Los Angeles, the city where she grew up, Parlato encapsulated her glimmering repertoire of Brazilian standards, reimagined R&B, ethereal post-bop, and incantatory originals over two concise sets.
With Taylor Eigsti on piano and Nord keyboard, Ben Williams on acoustic and electric basses, and drummer Malachi Whitson, she was in superlative company. It was her first time playing with Whitson, while Eigsti has been a key musical confidant for nearly two decades, and the combination of deep connection and bandstand discovery seemed like creative catnip for Parlato. Everything about her approach puts her in the center of the music, starting with eschewing the usual warm-up number for the trio. She opened the set with “Weak,” a stuttering arrangement of a song about losing emotional control by the R&B vocal trio SWV that she delivered with the finest of tonal gradations, undaunted by the resounding snap of Whitson’s rim shots.
Most jazz vocalists sing over their accompanists. Even when scatting, they’re in the foreground. Parlato situates herself in the middle of the mix, her voice nestled in Eigsti’s pearlescent keyboard chords. The first set’s centerpiece paired the hook-laden Simply Red song “Holding Back the Years” with Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly,” a signature Parlato vehicle that keys on her mouth percussion and hand claps. Eigsti has recorded both songs with her (the former on The Lost and Found and the latter on Live in NYC), and in a conversation with him several weeks ago he talked about her rhythmic acuity and the way she incorporates the sound of her breath into the flow.
“You can set your watch to her handclap,” he said. “The way she breathes in and out is very rhythmically influenced by all the people she studied and played with. She’s integrating it in a way that makes you feel she knows the full instrument. Pianists talk about using the full instrument, its full percussive, harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic range. I feel like that’s what Gretchen does using her breath for all these textural and rhythmic and sonic qualities,” an approach that made her duet with Whitson on Dorival Caymmi’s “Doralice” a thrilling samba-powered conversation.
As is so often the case, the second set felt more relaxed and expansive. Black Cat can be a demanding venue for vocalists, as audiences are sometimes more interested in their own conversations than the music. But as the room filled up later in the evening the vibe became tautly attentive. I’ve never heard the Black Cat as hushed as on Williams’s solo bass interlude introducing Wayne Shorter’s classic “Footprints,” another piece that Parlato has turned into a personal playground. She coaxed the audience to join her on the chorus of the delightful “Magnus,” a lullaby turned into a loving incantation.
She closed the night with her original “Better Than.” With Whitson picking up a brush for the first time in the evening, the band’s dynamics dropped and Parlato sang her song of solace with tender grace. Listening to her can feel like eavesdropping on an intimate conversation, exposed and vulnerable. A bandleader comfortable with freedom and a singer who doesn’t need a net, Parlato is at her best when she’s most exposed.