If the arresting purity of Gretchen Parlato’s voice, so ethereal yet so substantial, isn’t proof enough of her preeminent place among contemporary jazz singers, then judge her by the company she keeps. Since her arrival on the New York scene a decade ago, an anniversary celebrated with this CD/DVD combo, Parlato has made guest appearances on more than 50 albums, including Teri Lyne Carrington’s The Mosaic Project, Esperanza Spalding’s Chamber Music Society and Radio Music Society, and releases from Gerald Clayton, Kenny Barron, Terence Blanchard, Gregoire Maret, Marcus Miller, Lionel Loueke, Dayna Stephens, Sean Jones and Becca Stevens. In addition, she produced up-and-coming jazz vocalist Lauren Desberg’s 2012 debut, Sideways, joining Desberg for a stunning “You Go to My Head,” and contributed an exquisite “Waters of March” to 2010’s The Generosity Water Project, an all-star fundraiser linked to World Water Day.
Along the way, Parlato found time to record two of the past decade’s most critically acclaimed vocal albums, 2009’s In a Dream and 2011’s The Lost and Found. For Live in NYC she draws exclusively from their play-lists. Captured early last December over two evenings at the Lower East Side’s intimate Rockwood Music Hall, the dates feature alternating rhythm sections, both anchored by pianist Taylor Eigsti, who was integral to the beauty of The Lost and Found. Eigsti is first teamed with bassist Alan Hampton (also featured on The Lost and Found) and drummer Mark Guiliana, then with bassist Burniss Earl Travis II and Kendrick Scott, drummer on both of Parlato’s studio albums.
Perhaps it comes from working with so many extraordinary artists on so many exceptional projects, but apart from the breathy, cashmere beauty of her voice, Parlato’s most striking quality across these nine tracks is her intrinsic appreciation of, and seamless blending with, her musical environment. That sublime sense of oneness is as apparent with Parlato as it is with Tierney Sutton. But Sutton’s honing of similar tightness has been evolutionary, developed alongside the same bandmates for over 20 years. Parlato effortlessly achieves it with interchangeable players, though wisely keeps the profoundly simpatico Eigsti as her rudder.
As expected from as gifted an interpreter as Parlato, each of these selections is made to feel fresh. She is particularly imaginative with narrative propulsion, here evidenced by her opening “Butterfly,” Parlato navigating Herbie Hancock’s tricky zigzags while gently progressing from flutter to flap to full, vigorous flight before touching down, and on the furtive “Within Me,” with she and Eigsti darting in and out of progressively more menacing tunnels. Such skill reaches its crescendo at the hour-long recording’s midpoint, with her eight-minute voyage through Wayne Shorter’s “JuJu” (sadly not included on the four-track DVD), Parlato steadily growing stronger as she sluices the dark, dense jungle shaped by Eigsti, Hampton and Guiliana.
Simply Red’s “Holding Back the Years” and the early ’90s R&B chart-topper “Weak” provide sterling examples of Parlato’s ability to use her breathiness to full emotional advantage, masterfully manipulating it to capture-and blur-fear, regret, desperation, anticipation, hope and desire. She closes with a gorgeous reading of her own “Better Than.” It unfolds like a dawn-kissed bud, coming to full flower as she reaches the final line. “There’s a sky full of stars,” she sings, “so just be who you are,” a rather perfect summation of her unaffected, unassuming and utterly mesmerizing self.