Old school, new school

Amanda Carr and Gretchen Parlato do it their way
By JON GARELICK  |  October 8, 2009
TEAMWORK Parlato’s group sound is as distinctive as her singing.

If fans plan shrewdly next Thursday (October 15), they can hear jazz singing at its best in two completely different styles. At Scullers, Amanda Carr, a 47-year-old from Hanover, will be performing in the tradition of the Great American Songbook with the Kenny Hadley Big Band, as they celebrate the release of their Common Thread (OMS). At the Regattabar, Gretchen Parlato, a thirtysomething who has emerged from the ferment of the newer generation of the New York scene, plays behind her recent In a Dream (ObliqSound) with a small ensemble. The jazz tradition is inherent in each, if in radically different form.

Carr cut her teeth singing in rock-cover bands around the South Shore in the late '70s and early '80s. After working in various music-industry jobs on the West Coast, she returned to Boston in the '90s and began filling in for her mother, the singer Nancy Carr, in various "ghost bands" from the big-band era (Harry James, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw — her father is big-band trumpeter Nick Capezuto). About eight years ago, she decided that this was a repertoire she wanted to get serious about, and she approached Hadley, whom she'd met on some of those gigs. "I told him that I needed a mentor in this business," she tells me over the phone from Hanover. Her second disc with Hadley, the small-group date Soon (2007), hit paydirt when jazz journo sage (and Boston native) Nat Hentoff declared in the Wall Street Journal that Carr was "a true jazz singer in a time of wanna-bes."

Of course, what makes "a true jazz singer" is a matter of perennial debate. Carr does not scat or reinvent the melodies and harmonies the way, say, Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughan might have. But the swing is undeniable — her freedom around the beat, the aptness of her phrasing, her ability to blend with the other musicians.

"If you gave me a multiple-choice test on jazz singing, I'd probably fail it," says Carr, who's shy about the label, even if an authority like Hentoff isn't. "To say I'm a jazz singer, that's kind of a big thing, and I don't know if I deserve that. I'm a singer who tries to execute this material in the best and most honest way possible."

"Honest" in this case means that Carr — with the coaching of Hadley — never oversings and uses devices like vibrato sparingly. Or, as she's said in other interviews, "I'm probably more known for what I don't do."

But that doesn't account for her swing, or her rounded, warm, adult sound, her ability to color a word or phrase, her breath control as she turns the corner from one phrase to the next, sustaining the legato line.

It's all there in the Jimmy Van Heusen & Carl Sigman ballad “I Could Have Told You.” In this beautiful monologue, the spurned lover, speaking to the man who’s been dumped by the woman he dumped her for, says, “If only you’d asked, I could have told you so.” Carr — singing behind Bob Freedman’s poised arrangement — is conversational, resigned, but when she hits that “so” on the last turn through the chorus, the drop in register is wrenching.

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