Breath of Experience: Parlato wields her windpipe like an old pro.

The foremost qualities of jazz vocalist Gretchen Parlato’s artistry are her breathy gentleness and sensuality—she doesn’t sing so much as insinuate. Throughout her latest, In a Dream, she exhibits a supple, nuanced airiness that puts the disc leagues ahead of the year’s other vocal jazz recordings. It’s not just any singer who can, for example, land precisely the irregular rhythmic lunges of Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly” without releasing her grip on the melody’s peaks and valleys. Or simultaneously float through the dreamy mood of Duke Ellington’s “Azure” and find the sorrow beneath its surface. That approach manifests on the album-opener, a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It”; built into the tune is the thrill of new love, which Lionel Loueke’s syncopated guitar and vocalizations seem prepared at the outset to express. When Parlato enters, her near-whispers immediately seem to bridle those sentiments—a sort of seduction through vulnerability—but a more careful listen reveals her extraordinary confidence. Parlato’s audible gasps are devices for suspense and rhythm between her sighing phrases (“I can’t [gasp] help it [gasp] if I wanted to”). The trick reveals Parlato’s mastery of rhythm, which she confirms handily with “On the Other Side” and the bossa nova “Doralice.” It doesn’t hurt that her accompanists constitute one of jazz’s best rhythm ensembles. Loueke, keyboardist Aaron Parks, bassist Derrick Hodge, and drummer Kendrick Scott work together frequently; they know how to balance out each other and a leader like Parlato. “Within Me” finds Hodge and Scott (on cajón) supporting the singer from beneath, while Parks’ piano responds to each of her lines. It’s Loueke’s presence, however, that’s crucial—his guitar is the album’s most prominent sound apart from Parlato’s voice. And Loueke’s mouth is a rhythm instrument all its own, with his hums and tongue clicks acting as bass and drums on “Butterfly” and “Doralice,” and joining as a full backing vocalist on “On the Other Side” and “Azure.” Loueke’s powerful chemistry with Parlato may indeed be the jazz world’s newest great partnership in the Billie Holiday–Lester Young tradition. Recently, jazz has embraced some callow vocalists whose singing is a sideline for their instrumental pursuits. Fortunately, such artists have Parlato to show them how it should be done: with emotional depth, subtlety, and the kind of precise technical craft where even the breathing sounds matter.