Gretchen Parlato made every word count when she performed her unique, wistful style of jazz at the West End Cultural Centre Wednesday night.
And she made almost as many non-words count, as her style relies a great deal on the substitution of sounds for words that makes her as much an instrumentalist as singer throughout her performances. It has been done by other singers, but few have incorporated it into the essence of their style as has Parlato.
She is a good songwriter, but a couple of her best tunes during her TD Winnipeg International Jazz Festival performance were '80s pop tunes: Holding Back The Years, a hit for the British band Simply Red, and the U.S. hit Time After Time, which Miles Davis used as a staple of his '80s electric bands.
Whatever she sings, her emotion and languid style capture the audience's attention, drawing them into the feeling of the song as much as the message conveyed by the words.
Parlato is a singer who, over time, likely will effect a change in jazz singing in general. She is a beautiful singer, but not wedded to the Great American Songbook, the collection of jazz standards that itself is shifting as more and more young musicians introduce their own generation's popular songs into the canon.
The singer's trio -- Taylor Eigsti on piano and keyboards, Burniss Travis on bass and Jamire Williams on drums -- is the perfect complement to her singing style and voice. She uses the instrumentalists, all younger players in demand and on the way up as is Parlato, as much more than a backing band. Williams was a real hit with the audience with understated soloing, Eigsti delivered some beautiful, atmospheric sounds when Parlato needed it, and Travis moved between acoustic jazz bass and a funkier electric bass.
Parlato may not be a household word in jazz, but that is to her credit as she continues to develop her own style -- one likely to assure her a long musical career.
And she won the award for female singer at Wednesday night's Jazz Awards, chosen by the Jazz Journalists Association and handed out in New York City.
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Winnipeg singer Erin Propp, who opened the show, has such a beautiful voice and a mixture of assurance and vulnerability that easily draws in her audience.
Backed by guitarist Larry Roy and bassist Luke Sellick, she caught attention with a gorgeous rendition of the standard Skylark before singing some of her own compositions, songs she is preparing to record this summer.
The originals were good, and she just poured her heart out on a song about her father's love for her mother. The spare instrumentalism by Roy and Sellick is a perfect match for the young singer.
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Pianists Jeff Presslaff and Will Bonness have been improvising on two keyboards for a year or so and released an album, Rhapsodies by Two, at a jazz fest performance Wednesday night where they performed on piano and electric piano, alternating on the instruments.
Duo piano performances are not new to jazz, of course, but they are entertaining, and challenging, when done by good pianists like Presslaff and the bright young Bonness, newly named as piano professor in the jazz studies program at the University of Manitoba faculty of music.
TD Winnipeg International Jazz Festival
West End Cultural Centre
4 stars out of 5