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Her Songs Are Written in Body Language : Jazz: Rebecca Parris' emotional themes take on a physical form when she sings. The vocalist performs in Costa Mesa tonight.

August 13, 1993|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Listen to just a few songs from Rebecca Parris' album "Spring," and its underlying themes of physical and emotional intimacy are immediately apparent. You might even say the recording oozes with sexuality.

"There's an undeniable physical aspect to our lives, an intimate side," Parris said in a phone conversation from Phoenix, where she's visiting friends and family during a break from a mini-tour of the West Coast. "And of course that comes out in my music. Singing takes in all sides of a person and the physical side, the romantic side, is certainly one of the most important."

So when she croons a line requesting "Just body language, can you blame me?" as she does on Michael Franks' "Tell Me All About It," or "You look better than food" as she does on "You Look So Good"--both intoned in a complex, somewhat husky syle--one can't help but feel an expectant shiver. You know exactly how she feels.

And, as you might expect, this physicality carries over to her stage presence as well.

"Yes, I'm a very physical singer when I perform, I really get involved when doing a song. Somebody told me, 'You're always giving 200% on every song. Why don't you give it a rest sometime?' But I can't do it. I'm completely overtaken with the music. Even when I'm sitting down to perform, I have to move to the music. It's something I call chair dancing."

The Boston-based vocalist, who appears with keyboardist George Gaffney tonight and Saturday at Vinnie's in Costa Mesa, began preparing early on for a career as a singer. Born in Newton, Mass., the 41-year old Parris credits her father, an actor, and her mother, a concert pianist, with pointing her in the right direction.

"My father had me singing parts in summer stock at the age of 6," she said. "And there was always music to listen to. Also, the school district in Newton had a very good music program at the time."

Tall for her age, the youngster soon outgrew the theater's "little girl parts," as she calls them, graduating to adult roles while barely in her teens.

"I must have played every (female) lead in every Rodgers and Hammerstein play there is," she recalled, reciting a long list of credits. She also did jingle sessions and some modeling, and began singing everything from funk and country-Western to opera.

This kind of wide experience gave her the confidence to perform almost any type of music with conviction.

"Some songs require that you assume a role to make it work, and my theater days make that easy for me."

Though Parris' reputation is as a jazz singer--she has appeared with Wynton Marsalis, Dizzy Gillespie and the orchestras of Count Basie, Woody Herman and Buddy Rich in Boston, as well as appearing at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1990--"Spring" (see accompanying review) is hardly a traditional jazz album, missing the kind of Ella Fitzgerald-inspired bop and scat treatments usually associated with jazz singers.

"It's not that I don't do (that kind of material)," she said. "In fact, when I'm doing a performance, I do a lot of that sort of thing. But for this album, I was looking for a different mood."

Contributing to that mood is the Brazilian-inspired rhythms of many of the pieces (two of the tracks were written by respected Brazilian composer Dori Caymmi, who makes a guest appearance on the CD). "Michael Franks once said it's illegal to write a bad song in Brazil. Well, Brazilian music is my drug. I love doing bossa nova beats; after all, everything sounds good done as a bossa nova."

Another reason for the success of the disc is its lush blend of percussion and electric and acoustic instruments. Parris is credited for all the arrangements, usually with help from producer-guitarist John Chiodini and keyboardist George Mesterhazy.

"I was involved in all phases of the arrangements, how a song will be approached as well as its specific feel, format and the mapping of where it will go."

Beyond the album, Parris has other reasons for being upbeat these days. She recently finished recording an album with fellow-Bostonian vibist Gary Burton for the GRP label set for release in January, and the two will tour together early in 1994 to support the disc. Parris, flattered to have been selected for the project by the well-known vibraphonist, adds her voice on every track.

"It's an interesting change for Gary," she said. "He explained to me how he learned most of his phrasing from singers and wanted to acknowledge the debt. It's really an honor for me to work with him and it means a big jump in my career."

She's also optimistic about the current state of her art.

"There's a general upswing in this kind of music, a return to the artistic values that it holds. Today's pop music has so little to titillate the brain and there's a lack of vocabulary in the lyrics. So I think people are turning back to a more intelligent, more involved type of music.

"I don't think that necessarily means a renaissance of all the great songs--after all, they never really went away. But the trend is to be more eclectic, do more intelligent kinds of music. And that suits me just fine."

* Rebecca Parris appears with George Gaffney tonight at 8 at Vinnie's Ristorante, 270 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa. Also Saturday. No cover. (714) 722-9264.

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