Vocalist Gazarek Blends Candor and Genuine Feeling in Her Performance

Feb 5, 2014

Sara Gazarek.
Credit Sara Gazarek

At a time when many aspiring, young vocalists mistake blaring volume and grating gymnastics as the height of heartfelt artistic expression, Sara Gazarek, a savvy, swinging singer of exquisite taste, bright wit and creative vitality, is a welcome breath of fresh air. She’s a voice of reason amid the sound and the fury signifying not much of anything.

Hailed by The Los Angeles Times as “the next important jazz singer,” Gazarek is a fluent vocalist with a beautiful voice, an unerring sense of pitch and time, and a diverse but deep emotional range, free of herniating histrionics. A completely natural sounding interpreter of all kinds of songs, both classic and contemporary, she executes swiftly passing meter changes and intervallic leaps with ease; burrows deep inside the lyrics that she completely comprehends and has obviously lived with, thought about and absorbed into her own life’s personal experiences.

"In jazz, I think the most fun part is that people genuinely want you to bring yourself to the song."
Sara Gazarek

While she has made several acclaimed albums and toured extensively, Gazarek still might be a bit under the radar for many general interest fans who might easily connect with her style, which is smart, celebratory, accessible and crosses all generation gaps.

Area fans can revisit this talent or hear her for the first time as she makes two appearances in the area this weekend as part of her duo tour of the Northeast. Gazarek and her acclaimed collaborator, pianist Josh Nelson, make two rare stops in the Jazz Corridor. One is in Hartford, her first time there, at 7:30 pm on Friday, February 7, at Japanalia Eiko. The other is at 7:00 pm on Sunday, February 9, in Northampton, Massachusetts, at the Iron Horse Music Hall, a venue she last played in with her full band about six years ago.

A genuine musician, Gazarek is totally empathetic with her collaborators as she demonstrates on her most recent and elegant album, Blossom & Bee. The album is her debut for Palmetto Records, one of the best of the indie labels.

If the Seattle-born, L.A.-based singer/songwriter and music faculty member at the University of Southern California has a secret to her success, it might well be her total lack of pretense, her disdain for vocals as a form of showy calisthenics. Her hallmarks are her musical directness and candor, her ability to blend nuance with genuine feeling, a delivery that comes across as art rather than artifice, as songs sung with a meaningful message for the audience.

Explaining why she doesn’t buy into the pyrotechnic school of jazz singing, Gazarek said, “I’ve been to a number of shows where my jaw is on the floor with how impressed I was by sheer vocal abilities. It’s impressive, but it doesn’t resonate with me for days. I’ve been to other shows featuring singers who aren’t into that, where I hear something that lingers in my memory for a really long time.”

Gazarek spoke by phone from her L.A. home, where she lives with her husband. “There was a conscious choice I made a few years ago,” she said, “that my goal was not to impress anybody with gymnastics, but more to try to express something with feeling. In jazz, I think the most fun part is that people genuinely want you to bring yourself to the song, and to be very honest, and to present a genuine expression that means something, and resonates with you as an artist. The audience can tell when it’s an act, or a character role."

Gazarek brings a contemporary edge to classic material without blunting the song’s original qualities. She creates compelling music for veteran listeners, even awakening their fondest remembrance of things past. Simultaneously, she creates something new, bright, and quite relevant to listeners of her own generation -- young adults anywhere from their 20s to 40s who, like her, were born many decades after some of the songs in the more classic side of her repertoire were written and performed by giants of a long-gone era.

Josh Nelson and Sara Gazarek.
Credit Sara Gazarek

Blossom & Bee features warm, star-glittering appearances by arranger/multi-instrumentalist Larry Goldings and guitarist/singer John Pizzarelli. On the album, Gazarek breathes new life into such classics as “Tea for Two,” a stirring new brew seasoned with zesty meter shifts, and “I’m Old Fashioned,” which, despite its title, is here rejuvenated into a hip, very much in-the-moment mix with as much kick as a bittersweet cocktail on the rocks.

Explaining her multi-generational appeal, Gazarek cited her interpretation of “Cheek to Cheek,” the classic song Irving Berlin wrote for the 1935 film Top Hat with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. “We know there’s a generation of people that loved actually dancing with their cheek pressed to somebody,” she said. “But that doesn’t help anybody in my age group. The song has a universal concept, which is the excitement of not knowing where this new love is going to go, and wanting it to go somewhere, and hoping that it’s actually going to go there.”

Along with the vintage gems in her repertoire, Gazarek also selects far newer, contemporary material, sometimes basing her choice on a personal event from her own life. “On our latest record,” she said, “I picked Ben Folds’s ‘The Luckiest,’ because that was the song my husband and I first danced to at our wedding.”

Gazarek was a relatively late bloomer for jazz, growing up with and loving the music of The Beatles, Carole King and Joni Mitchell. Unlike many jazz performers of her generation, she didn’t grow up in a household immersed in jazz, with record collections richly stocked with Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald or Carmen McRae. She didn’t really connect with the music until she was in a jazz choir in high school -- then it was love at first hearing. “I was just immediately fascinated by how improvisational and honest all the performances were,” she said. 

For the Hartford date, Gazarek might well have to play at least one selection from Blossom & Bee: her rendition of “Some of These Days,” a signature song for the flamboyant Sophie Tucker, one of Hartford’s most famous celebrities, and one of the most lovably outrageous showbiz figures of the early 20th century.

Sophie Tucker in 1917.
Credit Creative Commons

Tucker, who was famously billed as The Last of the Red Hot Mommas, was born in Russia as Sophie Kalish -- a surname her father changed to Abuza when immigrating to the United States after reportedly deserting the Russian army. The family ran a diner and a boarding house in Hartford on Morgan Street. Sophie began singing for customers while waiting on tables in the family diner.

A diamond-spangled superstar singer, lavishly bedecked in jewels, beads, bangles, furs and feathers, the saucy-witted queen of risqué remarks and sexually suggestive, double entendre-studded songs, Tucker was a 200-pound, bawdy, brassy bombshell/superstar of the 1920s through the ‘30s, the Bette Midler of her era who soared to international fame under her stage name Sophie Tucker. Her fabled career stretched over more than six decades from vaudeville, Broadway, famous nightclubs and cabarets to, later in life, appearances on TV specials and “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Not surprisingly, Gazarek had never even heard of Tucker’s trademark anthem until she was 15 years old, and first sang it in 1997, in a vaudeville revue at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School. 

In the ancient vaudeville song’s new revived form, it has some of the old-timey feel, even though it has been transformed into a sizzling contemporary cooker. In her fluent, vital, direct manner, Gazarek nails it brilliantly with a little bit of help from her friends, Pizzarelli and Goldings, who dazzle respectively on guitar and organ.

Throughout the album, Gazarek’s longtime collaborator, pianist Josh Nelson, plays a key role both as empathetic accompanist and as a strong soloist in his own right. Nelson, who was a semifinalist in the prestigious Thelonious Monk Piano Competition in 2006, has also accompanied Natalie Cole and Queen Latifah, and performed with top jazz performers ranging from Christian McBride to Matt Wilson.  

Sara Gazarek and Josh Nelson.
Credit Sara Gazarek

Over their nine-year professional partnership, the pair have become not just good friends but also kindred musical spirits, charming audiences from New York to Tokyo. They even collaborate on writing songs, including two selections on Blossom & Bee, a title that acknowledges Gazarek’s love for the late singer/songwriter/pianist Blossom Dearie.

“There’s a trust there,” Gazarek said, “and a knowledge of each other’s instincts that lends itself to something really magical in the duo tour show. I think what people will see in Hartford and Northampton is really vulnerable, expressive, and in-the-moment celebrations of the musical marriage that we’ve had for so long.”

The two have written new material for the tour which, by the end of the year, she said, could lead to a multimedia project and a new release. What you see in Hartford or Northampton from this fully-evolved artistic alliance is an exciting, potentially great work in progress. Gazarek also plans to release an album with her full-scale band by the end of the year.

Ticket information: Friday, February 7, 7:30 pm, at Japanalia Eiko, 11 Whitney Street in Hartford; Music@Japanalia Series; $48.00, stage-side seating; $28.00, general row seating; Reservations: (860) 232-4677. Sunday, February 9, 7:00 pm at The Iron Horse Music Hall, 20 Center Street in Northampton, Massachusetts; tickets: advance, $12.50; at the door, $15.00. Information: iheg.com and (413) 586-8686.

Fred Hersch.
Credit John Rogers

A Herschphile’s Heavenly Trifecta

Fans of the great, trailblazing pianist Fred Hersch can hit the trifecta this weekend as the six-time Grammy nominee plays three consecutive nights in Connecticut. The hard-swinging, lyrically poetic maestro performs with his trio at 8:30 pm on Friday, February 7, and Saturday, February 8, at The Side Door in Old Lyme. He goes solo at 7:00 pm on Sunday, February 9, at the Edmond Town Hall in Newtown.

Hersch, who has already performed solo at The Side Door, returns to the robust shoreline jazz spa for back-to-back appearances Friday and Saturday nights with his trio. Here’s the ideal setting for savoring his mercurial skills as an interactive performer. Tickets for The Side Door’s Herschfests are $45.00 per show. Doors open at 7:30 pm an hour before downbeat time. The Side Door is located at 85 Lyme Street in Old Lyme. Information: thesidedoorjazz.com and (860) 434-0886.

For the third and final piece of the performance trifecta, the pianist presents a solo concert at Edmond Town Hall, 45 Main Street in Newtown. Here’s the ultimate and most intimate way to hear what’s going on in the master improviser’s mind, a microscopic close-up of his creative process as he has revelatory conversations with himself. Information: edmondtownhall.org and (203) 270-4285.

Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR

Yale Festival’s Welcome Return   

Back for a well-merited encore, the student-organized, annual Jazz Festival at Yale this weekend presents admission-free performances and talks on the New Haven campus featuring the noted saxophonist/flutist Paul Lieberman, steel drummer Andy Akiho and organist/pianist Cory Henry.

In another A+ effort, The Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective presents the return of  the festival, which it launched entirely on its own initiative last year to much acclaim by bringing the great pianist/composer and Yale alumnus, Vijay Iyer, to the campus to perform with his trio and to present a master class.

Lieberman, a Yale alum who’s a staple on the Brazilian jazz scene, kicks off  the second annual festival at 7:30 pm on Friday, February 7, as he  performs with the Yale Jazz Ensemble at Sprague Hall at 470 College Street. On the next day, Saturday, February 8, at 3:00 pm, he will present a master class at Sudler Hall located in Harkness Hall at 100 Wall Street. A globe-trotting, multi-instrumentalist, Lieberman has performed with such notables as Flora Purim and Airto Moreira.

Akiho, another Yale alum, returns to the campus to perform with a quartet comprised partially of Yale alumni and School of Music students at 4:00 pm on Saturday, February 8, at Sudler Hall. Later that day, at 6:30 pm, Henry, who’s also a bandleader and producer, collaborates in an intimate duo format with drummer Carlin White at Sudler Hall. Henry has played with a diverse array of musicians ranging from P. Diddy to Snarky Puppy to Kenny Garrett. In the festival finale, Akiho returns to Sudler Hall to present a master class at 3:00 pm on Sunday, February 9. All events are free, no tickets required. 

Redman on Track at Iron Horse

Already accepted at Yale Law School, Joshua Redman graduated in 1991 from Harvard College summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a BA in Social Studies, obviously a strong candidate for someday becoming a legal heavyweight at a prestigious firm of his choice. After graduating from Harvard, however, he deferred entrance into Yale Law for what he thought would only be a temporary break, maybe just a year. So he moved in with old under grad pals from Boston who had moved to Brooklyn, got swept up in the New York jazz scene, jamming with the best and the brightest. Only five months later, he won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition. 

Redman presents his jazz bona fides as he leads his quartet in two shows, one at 7:00 pm, the other at 9:30 pm on Thursday, February 6 at the Iron Horse Music Hall, 20 Center Street in Northampton, Massachusetts. His colleagues and fellow swinging scholars are pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Reuben Rogers, and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. Tickets for each show are: $30.00 in advance; $35.00 at the door. Information: iheg.com and (413) 586-8686.

Pacheco Returns

Pianist Taino Pacheco returns for another encore as the headliner at 3:00 pm on Sunday, February 9, at the free Baby Grand Jazz Series at the Hartford Public Library, 500 Main Street. Pacheco, who earned a bachelor’s degree at Central Connecticut State University, studied jazz with both Jackie and Rene McLean while a student at the Artists Collective. He has performed at corporate venues and for campaigns with the Greater Hartford Arts Council.  Information: (860) 695-6295.

Allen’s Rx for Wintry Blahs

If polar vortices and wintry blahs have got you depressed, rejuvenate yourself by sampling the red-hot, curative elixirs of alto saxophone artistry prescribed by Kris Allen on Monday, February 10, at 8:00 pm as he leads his quartet in the Jazz Mondays series at  Black-eyed Sally’s, 350 Asylum Street in Hartford. Allen has much to celebrate, thanks to life-affirming recordings like his “Circle House,” a release for all seasons, an antidote to the chill of New England winters. Cover: $5.00. Information: charteroakcenter.org and (860) 278-7427.

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