Lean In
Release date: May 19, 2023
Label: Edition Records

Lean In is the new collaborative album from vocalist-arranger Gretchen Parlato and guitarist-vocalist Lionel Loueke. Rooted in freedom, spontaneity, and impulse, Lean In showcases the earthy connection and palpable synergy of two musical collaborators and friends. Conceptualized, written, and recorded while in the grips of a global pandemic, the soul-stirring set bears the various and tense loads of the last three years, all while Parlato and Loueke remain decidedly vulnerable and charismatic.

The two met in 2001 at The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 2003, both musicians cut their teeth on New York City’s jazz circuit, often playing duo concerts, or inviting one another as guests within larger ensembles. Over the next three years, they both would emerge as major artists on the rise, with Loueke working with luminaries like Terence Blanchard and Herbie Hancock and Parlato winning first place in the 2004 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition, gaining the attention and mentorship of Wayne Shorter and others. Parlato and Loueke continued to appear on each other’s respective projects, both offering a pan-genre approach to their artistry with global influences as the cornerstone of their expression.

Lean In evolved between Luxembourg and Los Angeles, where the two respectively reside, as the two artists traded song ideas over the internet. Within four months of the process, Parlato and Loueke were in a Los Angeles studio, rounding out the band with two of the most versatile musicians of their respective instruments, bassist Burniss Travis and drummer Mark Guiliana. Performed in English, Portuguese, and Fon (the indigenous language of Benin), the songs formulate brilliant soundscapes from pop and R&B classics to Afrobeat and Brazilian tunes that, once amalgamated, defy categorization.

The album opener, “Akwê,” begins with Loueke and Parlato singing a joyful, syncopated melody in unison before Loueke laces the melody with familiar progressions heard in traditional West African music and pairs this with his stunning mouth percussion. The lyrics translate, in part, to “Money can help us, but it does not resolve everything. Find your happiness, passion, purpose and follow your dreams to find true contentment.” An early established sentiment of the album which captures the wisdom acquired over the last three years.

Parlato’s sublime rework of the 1984 hit “I Miss You” from the all-women ’80s funk band Klymaxx follows. A childhood favorite of Parlato, the song was entirely unfamiliar to Loueke, who builds a rhapsodic harmonic structure resulting in a more tender take on the original power ballad, its sentiment garnering new meaning as circumstances of the pandemic indefinitely distanced families, friends, and loved ones.

Originally written for a project commissioned by The Jazz Gallery as part of their Fellowship Program in 2019, the lyrics for “If I Knew” play with various oppositions of concept over a deliciously funked-out Afrobeat dance track, adding the invigorating sounds of Travis and Guiliana into the fold.

A trio of entrancing interludes, “Okagbé,” “Mi Wa Sé,” and “Dou Wé,” weave through the set as swirling atmospherics, the latter two based on instrumental improvisations by Loueke, Travis, and Guiliana. With melodies by Parlato and lyrics by Loueke, they serve as literal invitations. The first to listen, the second to dance. “Mi Wa Sé” features Parlato and Guiliana’s young son, Marley, on lead vocals.

At the heart of the album sits “Astronauta,” written by composers Carlos Pingarilho and Marcos Vasconcellos. One of the earliest Brazilian pieces Parlato learned, it receives an exquisite treatment from Parlato and Loueke, whose ethereal vocal solo serves as a major highlight in this pensive, tender rendition.

A fan favorite, Loueke’s composition “Nonvignon” is perhaps most emblematic of the connection between him and Parlato, as it represents their earliest revelation of the joy and magic they could co-create. Translating to “Good Brother,” “Nonvignon” is the African name bestowed upon Loueke, and it holds within it a noble message. “We are one family,” says Loueke. “We have the mind, the heart, and the imagination, and we have to use this gift to love [and protect] each other.”

Co-written by Parlato, Loueke, and Guiliana, and built around Guiliana’s progressive percussion loop, “Lean In” reflects their creative methodology during the pandemic. “The order you hear each of us enter, is essentially how the piece was composed. Mark created a percussion track, I wrote melody and lyric over it, and Lionel added harmony and his vocal.” says Parlato. “It was a true three-way collaboration.”

Painful Joy” is a beautiful, haunting piece that features Parlato and Loueke singing an enchanting melody in unison, with the harmony moving through minor thirds. The song is inspired by life’s contradictions in navigating the pain of human loss and the ways it insisted we find inspiration. “It forced us to take a break and let the Earth breathe a little more,” says Loueke. “I started hearing birds that I never heard before in my neighborhood because we were in lockdown.” There is a mournfulness that shifts with a minor to major transition and the addition of warm handclaps, offering a hope through the pain. “We are leaving the planet to the next generation…it’s up to each of us to do our part.”

The album closes with “Walking After You,” the Dave Grohl composition from the 1997 The Foo Fighters release, The Colour and the Shape. After over two decades with The Foo Fighters, drummer Taylor Hawkins passed away in March of 2022. ​​“We recorded in March, and he died in April,” says Parlato. “It wasn’t a tribute song to him at that time, but after Taylor passed, the song took on a different meaning.”

As with all of life, the meaning in our work, our thoughts and ideas can and do shift with time and perspective. With Lean In, Loueke and Parlato celebrate, contemplate, mourn, and rejoice the events of their 20 year journey as friends and collaborators who remain in awe of one another, through the tenets of their message, their playfulness, their enchanting sound, and rhythmic complexity laced with wit and dexterity — imbuing the songs with a timeless relevance for all who listen for years to come.

"With glimmering rapport and supple ingenuity, the glamouring power of Parlato and Loueke’s deepening partnership captured on Lean In seduces with each listening." Read his review and the reviews in the Hot Box in the June 2023 issue here.

"Gretchen Parlato has a low-gloss but captivating flair as a singer-songwriter, and over the last two decades she’s helped redraw the map for jazz vocals." Read the feature interview for WRTI/WBGO.

"The vocalist and guitarist unite on a mellow yet complex album that is a winning testament to the musicians’ less-is-more approach." Read the review here.

"Vocalist Gretchen Parlato may have clocked more than two decades in a creative partnership with guitarist Lionel Loueke — but she still feels the same chills from when they first linked up." Read the full interview and feature story here.

"this is [...] what contemporary jazz does best." Read the top-rated review here.

Listed among 10 Albums You Need to Know: May 2023 here.

“They explore the plights and points of their inspirations in duo for the first time, searching for beauty and distinguishing themselves in sound and language.” Read the 4-star review here.

"..another peak in both Parlato and Loueke's remarkable careers." Read the review of tracks "Lean In" and "I Miss You" here.

"Only synergistic, like-minded musicians could craft an album so rich in rhythms, textures and harmonies through the use of so few instruments. Each echoed these sentiments...Blending their voices, cultures, and musical talents makes for a truly sublime listen." Review here.

Read the album announcement here.

Read the album announcement in Spanish here.

"Two decades of collaboration and close friendship are on display with Parlato and Loueke's first full duo-recording; Lean In shows the breadth of their globe-spanning interests and dazzling versatility, but most important is the heartfelt warmth through every moment." Read the review here.

Read the review in Russian here.

"Parlato & Loueke offer the listener a contemporary duet, blending two individually talented artists with a collaboration that explores cultures and techniques." Read more here.

"...beautiful songs." Read more here.

"Lean In is their most complete and winning collaboration. It works so well because it draws rhythms and inspiration from around the world, with both artists simultaneously subtle and busy." Read the review here.

"Lean In is not a nostalgic look backward; indeed, it updates and expands the range of the duo to the present." Read more here.

"Couple the irresistibly appealing voice of Gretchen Parlato with the guitar and voice percussion artistry of Lionel Loueke and the result is the exquisite Lean In." Review here.