Just Jazz Concert Series | Sara Gazarek
Wednesday, June 08
08:30 PM - 11:00 PM
Doors open at 7pm. Concert starts at 7:30pm. There will be a short artist interview prior to the live performance. Bar area will be open on the outdoor patio. Two drinks included with ticket purchase.
Graced with an “impeccable” voice (Winnipeg Free Press) and hailed as an artist that “may well turn out to be the next important jazz singer” by the LA Times, Sara Gazarek has been one of the leading lights of an impressive generation of jazz vocalists since her brilliant emergence at age 20. From the outside, her subsequent career has been the picture of success: five acclaimed albums, an ardent fanbase, enthusiastic reviews, and opportunities that have taken her around the world and led to thrilling collaborations with some of her most respected and celebrated peers.
In recent years, however, that picture has seemed increasingly incomplete; the light, breezy Sara that greeted audiences with a laugh and a song has seemed further and further removed from an ever more complicated reality. On her latest album, Thirsty Ghost, Gazarek finally brings her musical expression stunningly into phase with her emotional maturity.
The “exquisite taste, bright wit and creative vitality” hailed by WNPR remain, but those qualities are potently shaded by a rich undercurrent of complex feeling and turbulent realities. From her wide-ranging choice of repertoire to her nuanced approach to each carefully-chosen lyric, it’s with the double GRAMMY® nominated album “Thirsty Ghost” that Gazarek has crafted her most confessional and poignant album to date.
Given the personal and professional turmoil Gazarek has endured since her last solo release, the playful Blossom Dearie tribute Blossom & Bee, it would be surprising if she had emerged unchanged. Both her marriage and a long-term musical partnership dissolved, followed by a tumultuous romantic relationship rife with doubts, deception, and infidelity. Most shocking of all was the near-fatal car accident suffered by Gazarek’s mother, suddenly confronting the singer with the very real possibility of losing a loved one.
Thirsty Ghost reflects on those experiences, lacing the dazzling light that’s always been present in her music with a deep vein of heart-rending darkness. The portrait that Gazarek paints suggest that she’s lived something of a Picture of Dorian Gray in reverse: on the outside she’s remained the smiling girl in a sundress from a long-ago album cover, while hidden away are the life-altering upheavals that make the greatest artists so profoundly moving. Such a drastic change is easier dreamed of than embarked upon, and it took a push from one of Gazarek’s most revered mentors to jolt her into action. Following one of her performances, the GRAMMY®-winning jazz vocalist Kurt Elling – a musical idol turned personal friend – offered some vital advice. “Don’t be afraid to walk away from what you think people want from you,” he urged, “and to step into all of the depth, darkness, and radiance of who you really are. That’s what we are thirsty for. The honest, messy, beautiful YOU.”
That honest, messy, beautiful Sara Gazarek emerges in all her multi-hued radiance on Thirsty Ghost, though the ascendance itself was far from smooth. The journey that eventually arrived at this transformative moment was a long and winding one, stretching out over three years full of new collaborations, musical explorations, and courageous risk-taking. Tellingly, the title of the album itself, drawn from the lyrics she penned for “Distant Storm” (a vocal rendition of Brad Mehldau’s “When It Rains”) is a haunting self-portrait of a spectral being starving in a dry, barren wasteland, dreading but finally embracing the looming storm and reaping the life that is able to flourish in its aftermath.
The resulting collection is stylistically diverse, powerfully affecting, and starkly confessional. Gazarek worked closely on new compositions and inventive arrangements with such renowned jazz minds as Stu Mindeman (Elling’s regular pianist and collaborator), Geoffrey Keezer (David Sanborn, Wayne Shorter), Larry Goldings (James Taylor, Herbie Hancock), Josh Johnson (Esperanza Spalding, Leon Bridges), and Alan Ferber (Paul Simon, Harry Connick Jr.). Whether singing familiar jazz standards; contemporary pop covers by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, and Sam Smith; or her own original material, Gazarek tells her story with each song, through words or interpretation conjuring a vivid autobiographical sketch.
That can often mean undermining the intention of a lyric, which Gazarek does with wry cleverness. Thus Frank Loesser’s “Never Will I Marry” is insistent but less than convincing, while Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe When I Fall in Love” is more delusional than declarative, its “forever” a sometimes transparent attempt by the singer to convince herself of an uncertain future. Björk’s “Cocoon,” on the other hand, offers a brilliant celebration of newfound and entirely unexpected love, a happy ending to Gazarek’s wry “Easy Love,” the first step to opening up to the possibility of romance after another heartbreak.
Gazarek’s clever “Gaslight District” sculpts the idea of “gaslighting” – the psychological manipulation that takes place in many an unhealthy relationship – into a physical reality, drawing evocative parallels with San Diego’s Gaslamp District. Her heart-wrenching lyric for “Distant Storm,” which features an inspired appearance by Kurt Elling, captures the theme of the album in miniature. Its tempestuous imagery depicts the ominous clouds on the horizon but also the inevitable passing of the storm, leaving behind a chaotic but refreshed landscape where growth and life can finally thrive.
Gazarek’s experience began in the overcast light of Seattle, where she was originally drawn to musical theater and dance but fell in love with the jazz choir during high school. She went on to study at the University of Southern California, where she’s now been a member of the faculty for 8 years. Teaching is, of course, always a learning experience, and her connections with students have indeed let Gazarek to this transformative point.
While the changes she’s undergone recently have seemed seismic, audiences have marveled at Gazarek’s evolution on illustrious stages around the world, where she’s headlined and worked with such modern jazz greats as Billy Childs, Fred Hersch, and Helen Sung. The seeds of her fully-developed sound were sowed through each of those performances after being planted on her acclaimed earlier albums and the mentors and collaborators who’ve helped to guide and inspire her: Gazarek’s 2005 debut, Yours, was produced by the influential bassist John Clayton Jr., as were 2006’s Live at the Jazz Bakery and 2007’s Return To You, the latter of which featured trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and saxophonist Seamus Blake. Larry Goldings produced and played on Blossom & Bee, a tribute to the late, idiosyncratic vocalist Blossom Dearie. In 2016, Gazarek re-teamed with pianist Josh Nelson for the duo session Dream in the Blue, before venturing into startling new directions with Thirsty Ghost.
Of course, it’s easier to look back on a transformative experience than to be living through it, but Gazarek now views the volatile past few years as “a beautifully orchestrated ballet that finally brought me to the place I’d long desired to be – even if I didn’t know it.” The double GRAMMY® nominated album, Thirsty Ghost, explores that “honest, messy, beautiful’ place of hunger, thirst, and wanting more – more connection, more transparency, a more whole-hearted experience that occurs when we address the lessons that come with taking a deep look at adulthood. My hope is that my audience will see their own whole-hearted experiences reflected in this music – the light AND the dark.”