Exclusive Interview With Jazz Vocalist Sara Gazarek: On Inspiration, Lyricism, and the Joy of More

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sara gazarek

Whether she's dipping into the magic of Blossom Dearie on Blossom & Bee or belting in front of a German instrumental jazz act on Where Time Stands Still, Seattle-born Sara Gazarek is as close to a jazz "it" girl as you can get right now. Her love of that one great lyric coupled with her unfussy but stunning vocal tone is apparent through every phrase she sings.

Gazarek grew up without much exposure to jazz and was inspired in her early teens by musical theatre and dance. In high school, she fell in love with the jazz choir and was steered in the right direction by her director and mentor Scott Brown. After high school and competing as part of the Essentially Ellington Competition in which she walked away with the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation Vocal Soloist Award, the jazz bug had taken hold and she headed to the University of Southern California.

Gazarek's experiences at USC were transformative in more ways than one, with her helping develop the JazzReach program and winning awards. She won the Downbeat Student Music Award for Outstanding Collegiate Jazz Vocalist, setting in motion a career sparked with recognition and rightful accolades that would take her right up to now and the release of Blossom & Bee.

I had the opportunity to fire a few questions her way. Here's what happened:

Blossom Dearie was one of those performers with an astounding amount of delicacy to go with a staggering, slicing wit. There was a dark side to her work that sort of bounced off the carefree nature of what she brought to the table. Was this part of the appeal to look at her music more incisively on Blossom & Bee?

I don’t know that it was a goal of mine to look at Blossom Dearie’s music in an incisive way – I would never claim to be an expert on her music, and in fact, I wouldn’t say I love/know her music any more than her other hundreds of thousands of fans.  

The goal of this record really was to make an album that captured the joy, humor, and excitement of our live sets. We were finally at a point where we could confidently put every part of our personalities into our music, be it our emotionally driven/serious side, or our dark/light humorous side. We’d never accomplished that with a recording before, I think because we were so young and had this desire to show people how serious we were about the music. Hopefully now, the music speaks for itself, and we can just focus on bringing who we are as musicians (and people!) to the table.

I will say, however, that when we looked at the 5 or 6 tunes that needed to be on the CD, they all had one thing in common, and that was that they were brought to our book, unintentionally (and over a 4 year period) through the music of Blossom Dearie. So although I wouldn’t say this is a tribute record, we can’t ignore that a lot of this music was inspired by her spirit, and our love of her legacy.

You mentioned that you really fell in love with the simplicity of Dearie’s voice and delivery. In a world where style is often considered paramount to substance, even in the realm of jazz vocalists, how important is it for you to maintain some air of minimalism in your own delivery?

As a listener and an interpreter, I’ve never really been moved by a  lot of embellishments or vocal gymnastics. For me, it’s about connecting to the lyrics and delivering them in an honest way. So making sure that my phrasing and delivery matches some kind of speech pattern is really my only focus. If that means doing some kind of run, flip, pause or break, great! But my goal is to express a genuine experience, not impress people with an ability to alter something just to alter it. And my dear mentor, John Clayton always used to say “It’s all about the K.I.S.S.! Keep it simple, stupid!”

sara gazarekAlong with being ground in the fundamentals of the past, Blossom & Bee provides a look ahead (and a look around). There’s more to jazz singing than the Great American Songbook, isn’t there?

If a lyric speaks to an experience I can relate to, I feel like it has a place in our song book. “Tea For Two” might be a classic American Standard, but I think anyone (young or old) can identify with the desire to escape from our every day distractions and just focus on being with the one you love. So in our live shows, we might do some Rodgers/Hart standards, right next to some Paul McCartney tunes! To me, it’s important to sing the music and songs that moves me, and not worry about what songbook it comes from. They’re all songs, and some of them are truly genre-defying.  

Ben Folds’ beautiful song “The Luckiest” plays a prominent role not only on the new record but in your life. The story has been told, but run through just how important that song is.

I’ve always been a Ben Folds fan – I love how cutting and direct his lyrics are, and also the humor in his live performances. His song “The Luckiest” was the first dance at my wedding 2 years ago, and had been a beautiful part of my life long before then, so it just made sense to incorporate it into the story of the record.

And dropping in a little “Schoolhouse Rock” via “Unpack your Adjectives” is just something else, isn’t it?

Depends on who is listening, I guess…*smiles*

Five years passed between the release of Return to You and Blossom & Bee. In that time, you did a little work with Triosence. What was it like connecting with them?

It was great! I discovered a really strong passion for lyric writing (since that project all originals, no covers). I’ve always loved reading and singing lyrics, so I guess it made sense that at some point I’d want to start writing my own, but now I can’t seem to stop!

It was also fascinating to be involved in a project where I wasn’t the boss. A lot of the musical decisions weren’t mine to make, so I got a peek into the world of the sideman. It was a really wonderful education in how to be a better band leader

What was it like working with Josh Nelson?

Josh and I have had a really wonderful working relationship for the past 8 years. It’s been so lovely to grow with him as a musician, and to get to know what it’s like to work with a truly supportive accompanist and collaborator, on and off the stage. 

It was also really wonderful to create and work with another phenomenal keyboardist, our producer, Larry Goldings. Larry encouraged me to do some writing and arranging on this record, and had a very different process from how Josh and I had collaborated in the past. It was really neat to discover another, equally rewarding way to create!

How about the rest of the ensemble?

I’m privileged to work with some of the best young musicians in Los Angeles. Knowing that they are so solid, musically, really fuels this desire in me to take risks and be present on stage – because I have the confidence that they’ll follow me, or I’ll follow them, wherever we go. I’m so grateful for that, and for them. 

John Pizzarelli was a special guest on this project, and working with him was like a dream come true! John is so musical, and so talented (and so hilarious!). He really brought the songs that he guested on to another level. 

Moving on, the real reason Blossom & Bee came about as it did appears to be that there was a sort of “need” to say something now. This wasn’t just for the sake of putting out a new record, was it?

If we wanted to “put out a new record for the sake of putting it out” I guess we wouldn’t have waited five years to do it!  I’m so glad we took the time to generate the comfort and the confidence needed to say what we were able to say on this record.  So much "life" has happened in the last 5 years, to bring each of us where we are, and where we were when we recorded "Blossom & Bee." Each experience speaks to the music you hear, and I’m so grateful we took the time to cultivate it.

You are on the faculty at the University of Southern California. How does that experience inform your work as an artist?

Working in music education (particularly in Jazz Studies) has always been a goal of mine. It definitely keeps me balanced. I show up at USC and work with these young people, who either have so much fire or are on the cusp of discovering that fire, and then I go home and work on my own flame. It’s really thrilling to be a part of their process, and continue my own alongside it. 

I also know that I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the John Claytons or the Scott Browns who inspired me SO much along my musical journey, so if I can provide some kind of light in a long tunnel of creation, it’s a real joy for me.

What’s next for Sara Gazarek?

Hopefully, more! More homework, more lyric writing, more collaborating, more arranging, more listening, more teaching, more recording, more singing, more touring. Fingers crossed! 

To wrap things up, your ultimate, ideal musical partner in crime from any era would be…

Frank Sinatra, if I could just hold it together and not cry or laugh at any given moment on stage with him. I think Frank was the consummate performer. I can’t get enough of his old videos and live recordings.

And Seattle, in one word, is?