How does a genre-blurring music duo go from performing in a 150-seat arts library in La Jolla to performing in a 17,500-capacity amphitheater in Los Angeles less than 24 hours later?
Acclaimed singer Gretchen Parlato and award-winning guitarist and singer Lionel Loueke are about to find out. The two —who have collaborated since meeting in 2001 at USC's Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz — are now on tour to promote their fetching new album, "Lean In."
On the evening of June 16, the two longtime musical collaborators will take the stage at the La Jolla Athenaeum Music & Arts Library. That 10-row venue is so intimate some audience members are just a foot or two away from the performers.
On the afternoon of June 17, Los Angeles native Parlato and West African native Loueke will perform at the Hollywood Bowl. That 100-row venue is so large — measuring 450 feet from the lip of the stage to a back row perched 100 feet higher than the front row — there are escalators to help attendees get to their seats.
Parlato, 47, and Loueke, 50, have separately performed multiple times at the Athenaeum. Both have also performed multiple times at the Hollywood Bowl — she most recently at last year's all-star Frank Sinatra/Peggy Lee tribute concert, he as a member of keyboard legend Herbie Hancock's band.
But this will be the first time the duo has performed back-to-back concerts together, one day apart, at both the Athenaeum and the bowl.
"The audience at the bowl is so far away that it's like an out-of-body experience!" Parlato said, speaking from the L.A. home she shares with her husband, drummer Mark Guiliana, and their son, Marley. "I have to think of it as being just the same as a smaller venue, because almost anything is smaller than the bowl."
Loueke, who lives in Luxembourg with his second wife, Annabel Moroni, and their two children, agreed.
"The size of the Athenaeum and the Hollywood Bowl is obviously different," he said, speaking from a late-May concert tour stop in Basel, Switzerland.
"But in terms of what could change for us from one venue to the other, it might be the choice of songs we decide to do. Because the crowd at the bowl is like a sea of people and you can sometimes hear them on stage. So, we might have to shape our set to adjust.
"There is something about playing in a small place like the Athenaeum. You can hear a pin drop or someone coughing. You can hear every detail and I feel the energy of the people because they are closer."
'A living-room feel'
Parlato chuckled when asked about the intimacy of the Athenaeum. It was founded in 1899, 23 years before the famed Hollywood Bowl opened.
"You can hear a piece of sheet music fall on the floor at the Athenaeum," Parlato said. "It has a living-room feel and you can tell the audience stories. We'll play one set at the bowl. At the Athenaeum we'll play two sets, so you can hear our whole repertoire. And we probably won't play any ballads at the bowl."
Their duo's June 16 La Jolla concert is the second in the Athenaeum's 2023 Farrell Family summer jazz series.
It opens with a performance Sunday, June 11, by Venezuelan pianist Edward Simon and Mexican singer Magos Herrera. The four-part series concludes with a July 27 concert by Cuban pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa. (Swiss harmonica virtuoso Gregoire Maret, who was scheduled to perform with Lopez-Nussa, has dropped off the bill due to a scheduling issue).
Parlato and Loueke's June 17 Los Angeles concert is part of the opening day of the Hollywood Bowl Jazz Festival, which was known from 1979 until 2022 as the Playboy Jazz Festival. This year's edition features 21 artists over the June 17/18 weekend, including Kamasi Washington, Samara Joy, Poncho Sanchez and Bell Biv DeVoe.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Parlato regularly attended shows each summer at the hillside Hollywood venue with her parents. Later, when she was in high school, she would attend the annual Halloween concerts at the bowl by the Danny Elfman-led rock band Oingo Boingo.
"I remember seeing Chick Corea and Bobby McFerrin at the bowl, and there have been countless others," she said. "It's always a thrill to be on that stage in such an iconic, magical place."
"I was a student the first time I went to the bowl," recalled Loueke, whose first name is pronounced "lee-oh-nell."
"It was the Playboy Jazz Festival. Herbie was playing and Dave Holland, too. I love the fact that it not only is a huge place, but it's open-air and that gives musicians even more space. It's not like an indoor arena."
In a venue of any size, Parlato and Loueke have palpable musical chemistry. They first teamed up 22 years ago at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, which in 2019 was renamed the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz and is now based at UCLA.
Parlato remembers her initial encounter with the Benin-born Loueke as if it took place only last week.
"We were both auditioning for the Monk Institute," said Parlato, who became the first singer and only the second woman to be admitted into the prestigious program.
"We were the last two to audition and Lionel was second to last. I heard him audition through the door from the hallway and he blew me away. He's so captivating that, even without seeing him, I could hear he was absolutely incredible.
"I saw him with Herbie a few months ago at Disney Hall and had the same reaction to Lionel's playing, which is jaw-dropping and gave me goose bumps."
Loueke, in turn, vividly recalls first hearing Parlato when she auditioned after him at the Monk Institute. Both passed with flying colors and earned full scholarships.
"I remember listening to Gretchen because I was packing my gear up when she sang for the judges — Herbie, Wayne Shorter and Terence Blanchard," Loueke said. "I heard her voice through the door, a beautiful, natural, right-in-tune voice.
"I love to play with Gretchen because I don't feel like I have to be frustrated. I say this because most of the time with singers, you have to play the chords that are written to make them feel more comfortable.
"With Gretchen, I don't have to do that. I'm completely free because I know that — whatever I play — she will sing something that fits the chord and vice versa."
Although they grew up nearly 8,000 miles apart, Parlato and Loueke shared some of the same musical passions when they began collaborating in two of the Monk Institute ensembles.
One of them is Brazilian bossa nova great Joao Gilberto, whose 1970 classic, "Astronauta (Samba da Pergunta)," is given a fresh new take on Parlato and Loueke's new album. Another is American vocal wizard of awes Bobby McFerrin.
"The duets and collaborations Bobby has done have been an inspiration for me and for Lionel as well," said Parlato, who in 2004 won first-place honors at the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition. At UCLA, she had a double major in jazz and ethnomusicology.
That makes Parlato an ideal foil for Loueke, who credits the late Congolese vocal and guitar great Tabu Ley Rochereau as an early key inspiration, followed by George Benson, with whom Loueke would later collaborate.
"I was only doing African music," he recalled, "until somebody played me Benson's (1979 live album) 'Weekend in L.A.'
"Up to that point, I had never heard anybody play guitar like that. And the access to music was very restricted then, especially music coming from the United States. African music was everywhere, but not jazz."
Loueke laughed when asked if he was influenced by Benson's trademark unison guitar and scat-vocal lines.
"Absolutely!" he replied.
"I was trying to imitate him, although I don't have a voice close to George Benson's. It was very inspiring for me to imitate his scatting and to have a cassette tape of his guitar playing, which I could slow down to try and catch the notes he was playing.
"Because I don't consider myself a singer, I use my voice like a guitar pedal or effect. And it helps my phrasing (on guitar)."
Both Parlato and Loueke sometimes sing wordlessly.
When performing lyrics, she favors English and Portuguese. Loueke prefers to sing in the languages Fon (from Benin) and Mina (from Togo), to which he adds percussive tongue clicks.
"Lionel has been such a huge inspiration," Parlato said.
"You hear him doing percussion with his guitar and his voice, and it's unbelievable that he produces all that music and sound on his own. There's a percussive attack to his singing and to the vowels and consonants he's using.
"So, he's been a teacher for me, in terms of what I attempt to do. And he has such a beautiful, vast range. His low register is incredible and he has a beautiful high range as well."
After graduating from the Monk Institute, Parlato and Loueke separately moved to New York in 2003. It was then their musical relationship really began to blossom.
He performed on her self-titled 2005 debut album and on its 2009 follow-up, "In a Dream." In turn, she was featured on his 2006 album, "Virgin Forest," and his 2012 album, "Heritage."
Their new joint release, "Lean In," marks their first recorded collaboration in 11 years — and their first full album as a duo. Much like Parlato's solo releases, it offers an enticing blend of original compositions and imaginative reinventions of pop, R&B and rock songs, including "I Miss You" by Klymaxx and "Walking After You" by Foo Fighters.
"For me, that mix is kind of the template," Parlato said.
"When we thought of making this (album), it was during the pandemic. And since I live in L.A. and Lionel lives in Luxembourg, we sent (audio) files back and forth to create our repertoire for it and to make sure we had the right arc of original songs and standards.
"It's always been important for me to incorporate music from outside the jazz genre, because that's how I grew up. The point is to have your own connection with a song and sing it in a new way, a way that maybe no one else has done, and allow the listener to hear it in a way they haven't before."
Recording a song is one thing. Performing it live and making it sound fresh and different on stage each night is another altogether.
"That's when the magic really happens, when we are outside of our comfort zone and challenging each other," Loueke said.
"We listen to each other very closely and I know that, whatever I do, Gretchen has my back. And I have hers."
Athenaeum Farrell Family 2023 summer jazz series
(All concerts are at 7:30 p.m.)
Sunday, June 11: Edward Simon "Femeninas," featuring Magos Herrera
Friday, June 16: Gretchen Parlato & Lionel Loueke
Monday, July 24: Sullivan Fortner Trio
Thursday, July 27: Harold Lopez-Nussa "Timba a la Americana"
Where: Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, 1008 Wall St., La Jolla
Tickets: $40 members; $45 nonmembers; series tickets $152 and $172
Phone: (858) 454-5872
2023 Hollywood Bowl Jazz Festival
Featuring: Kamasi Washington, Bell Biv DeVoe, Samara Joy, Poncho Sanchez and more
When: 3:30 p.m. June 17 and 18
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 North Highland Avenue, Hollywood
Phone: (323) 850-2000