There are few things more beautiful than the flexibility and range of the female voice suited with an emotionally enthralling performance. Sara Gazarek’s silky Jazz eloquence is the balance between passion for the form and the classic education to hone that passion. Sara took time from teaching and performing to answer a few questions for Orange Country Reverb.
OCR: It has been five years since the release of your last album “Return to You.” What significant artistic growth took place within that time? What experiences shaped the production of “Blossom and Bee?”
SG: So much “life” has happened, it’s hard to pin point one particular experience that helped shape the music that you hear on this record. I will say, though, that there’s a certain confidence and comfort that was developed in that time that helped shape me as a musician, and I’m really grateful that we took the time to cultivate that (versus just hopping back into the studio after “Return To You” to crank out another record).
We were very aware of how young we were when we recorded “Yours” and “Return To You”, and so I think on a subliminal level we felt we needed to prove how serious we were about the music. Because of that, there were certain aspects of our personalities that weren’t incorporated into the music, and fortunately that’s changed. We finally have a record that reflects the joy, humor and excitement of our live sets, but also embraces the passion that we feel for the music.
OCR: What draws you to the genre of Jazz? How would you define Jazz?
SG: I’ll let other people take on the task of defining jazz… *smiles But I will say I’m drawn to music that allows for true artistic interpretation, variations from night to night, based on daily experiences and moods. I’ve always been inspired by the freedom in this art form. I love that the audience can tell when I’m genuinely invested (personally) in the interpretation of a song, and that drives me to really bring a part of myself along for the ride, instead of just putting on a “show”. It’s a rewarding experience as an artist!
OCR: Your biography proudly notes your launch into the world of music at the tender age of three when you sang numbers from the musical Annie. Do you still remember all of the words?
SG: Yes, of course! That’s a sweet little story that my mom likes to tell – that as a 3 year old, I not only knew all the words, but could stay in key. I’m not sure how much of it is true, but it’s cute to think about.
OCR: We here at OCR are connoisseurs of cover songs. You have covered artists like Leonard Cohen, Paul McCartney, and Joni Mitchell. What elements draw you to cover a song?
SG: I just love to sing songs I can relate to on a personal level, music that I can breathe life into. If that happens to be a beautiful old jazz standard like “Tea For Two”, where I’m thinking about that desire to strip away the distractions of everyday life, and just be with the one I love, I’m happy and I’m at home. But I also find beauty in contemporary standards as well. “The Luckiest” for example, was the first dance at my wedding, and I have a literal story I can think about and attach to when I’m singing it. It gives me a reason to sing them, and that brings a certain purpose and joy that’s hard to put into words.
OCR: You co-wrote the songs “Fly Away Birdie” and “Let’s Try This Again” with Josh Nelson. How would you describe your collaborative writing process? What are some of your personal goals when it comes to writing and arranging music?
SG: “Fly Away Birdie” was a song that Josh and I wanted to write for a long time. We’ve worked together for years and years, and have really grown together as artists, so it was an important message for us to convey – just that at some point, we needed to trust our own instincts in terms of the music we wanted to make, and the goals we have for each other. It’s our dream, so why let someone else dictate the path?
We talked through the concept, and then went back and forth with each other for the melody/harmony/lyrics. It was a true collaboration in that regard, and I think because we have such a personal relationship, the song reflects that.
OCR: You take jazz oldies and put a contemporary twist on them. What rewards come from introducing classic Jazz songs to a modern generation?
SG: We just try to be honest about our influences and the music that moves us. Everyone in the band is incredibly passionate about jazz, but we also continue to be moved by other music as well. So naturally, our love for particular harmonic progressions, or grooves might find their way into our arrangements. It’s neat to think young people might dig our interpretations of classic standards, but it’s also fun to imagine the older generation falling in love with the more contemporary songs as well!
OCR: On the cover of “Blossom and Bee”, you showcase a tattoo on the inside of your arm. What does it say and what significance does it hold?
SG: It says “…and I know that I am the luckiest” followed by the date of my wedding.
OCR: The title track “Blossom and Bee” is a beautiful duet. What inspired you to do this song as a call and response duet?
SG: I have to credit our producer, Larry Goldings, with the idea and vision to make that song a duet. When we finally settled on a lyric, Larry suggested we bring in John Pizzarelli to sing/play on the tune. I’m a huge fan of John’s music, so I was ecstatic when Larry was able to make it happen! I think the combination of Larry on piano and John singing and playing really sent that tune to the level it’s at. Geniuses at work!
OCR: You and your band organize free music clinics for children. What do these enrichment programs consist of?
SG: It really varies from clinic to clinic. Sometimes it’s an all-school assembly, where we’ll just play a few songs, talk about the music, and then bring some kids up to do a little scatting. Sometimes it’s a full on workshop with soloists or a choir. But whatever the focus, it’s always thrilling for us to be a part of spreading the word about this art form.
OCR: Clearly, teaching is a huge part of your life. As a professor at USC, what do you do to inspire your students to revitalize the Jazz movement? Do you ever feel like you are still a student?
SG: I think most young jazz musicians can recall that one person that lit the flame and showed them the beauty of this music. We all wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that moment. It’s really exciting to potentially be a part of that process in a young persons life! I think all we can do is just share our passion for the music, and hope it sticks. But it doesn’t hurt to incorporate it into something that they’re already excited about. With my USC students, I encourage them to chase the music that moves them. “You love that Amy Winehouse song? Great, how can we arrange it to incorporate your love of jazz?” And yes, I think I’ll always feel like a student. With music, there’s always more homework, and always more to learn.
OCR: If you could collaborate with any musical legend, who would it be?
SG: I’m really inspired by those old video recordings of Frank Sinatra. He was such a consummate performer! A phenomenal instrument, obviously a great musician and lyric interpreter, but he was (above all) an incredible performer. He was so funny when he could be, and so emotive when the moment called for it. And through it all, it seems like he was incredibly present! I know I would have loved to have shared the stage with him.
OCR: Your live performances are described as being imaginative. Are your live shows largely improvised?
SG: I’d say there’s room for improvisation in our music, but for the most part the music is pretty arranged. I try to stay invested in the lyric and delivery of the tunes, and the musicians are present in their parts as well, so things naturally shift from night to night.
OCR: What songs are easier to sing with such an amazing Jazz voice? Love songs or sad songs?
SG: You really can’t beat a sad song. For some reason, I think we always feel sadness on a deeper level. So even if I’m happy, I can still relate to and emote with a piece that talks about longing or loss. It can be scary territory to give in to, but it’s a great way to work through challenging experiences.
OCR: What’s next for Sara Gazarek?
SG: Hopefully we’ll continue to share this project with the world! I’m really proud of what we accomplished, and I think it’s our best recording yet. So, more shows! And then more… Everything else! More teaching, more recording, more collaborating, more writing, more touring, more more more!