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A Rising Star Makes a Worldly Jam

With so much emphasis on virtuosity in jazz, artists who pare their musical arsenals down to the soul-baring essentials usually prove the most alluring. Such is the case with singer Gretchen Parlato, who in 2004 won first prize in vocals at the Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition. While many contestants zipped through songs that doubled as daredevil vocal exercises, Parlato won the judges' acclaim by eschewing diva-like showmanship in favor of smart musicianship.

On her self-released, self-titled album, Parlato proves especially comfortable on ethereal, worldly jams -- particularly her reworking of saxophonist Wayne Shorter's "Juju" and "Footprints." Although both songs date back to Shorter's '60s hard bop and modal jazz catalog, Parlato channels the composer's love for Brazilian music. Initially accompanied by Lionel Loueke's spidery guitar, Café's earthy percussion and her own handclaps, Parlato taps into Shorter's adventurism with her thoughtful lyrics, which touch on the joys of inward search.

As the rhythmic pulse increases, and "Juju" gives way to "Footprints," Parlato sings the timeless melody without words, transforming her lissome voice into an ensemble member. Many other singers would attack Shorter's originals by spitting out fiery scats, but Parlato reaffirms her status as a brainy ingénue who aims straight at the heart of matters.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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John Murph
John Murph writes about music and culture and works as a web producer for He also contributes regularly to The Washington Post Express, JazzTimes, Down Beat, and JazzWise magazines.