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Sara Gazarek: The Art of Self-Discovery

By Dan Bilawsky

Vocalist Sara Gazarek’s Thirsty Ghost (self-produced, 2019) is a clear departure from her previous work. But it’s also a statement of arrival – a genuine piece of art leavened by pain, despair, love and newfound perspective.

“I guess you could say it’s a late life coming-of-age album,” she explains, “finally embracing that whole-hearted, wide-ranging spectrum of experience that we call adulthood.” Gazarek’s most personal offering, fueled by her own breakdowns and breakthroughs, it’s also her most ambitious. But above all, Thirsty Ghost is a reminder that the process of finding yourself often involves getting lost at the start.

At first blush, back in 2014, there were few signs that Gazarek, an artist of rare promise and poise, was being led astray by her own work. She was already a vocal veteran, albeit a young one, with a decade of professional experience under her belt. Her career was thriving and life seemed relatively stable. But one year later she was adrift.

“I had experienced a near-death trauma in my family, there was growing tension in a longtime musical partnership, and my marriage was crumbling,” relates Gazarek. And instead of opening up and allowing her art to reflect those messy aspects of life, she was clinging to archetypes. “I had been taught as a young musician that my audiences came to my shows expecting to feel better than when they walked in the room – that they wanted the happy-go-lucky girl in a dress. And whether or not I intended to, I couldn’t help but subconsciously subscribe to that value system, even while my life was headed into the eye of the storm.” It would take the guiding hands and words of her mentor, Kurt Elling, along with a good deal of time, soul-searching and effort, to move beyond that particular ideal and image. It would also take a village.

After experiencing that Elling-induced epiphany, Gazarek recognized the pressing need to uncover her authentic self in good company. And in connecting with new collaborators – chief among them, pianist/composer Stu Mindeman – she did so while marrying risk to reward. “In that first writing session with Stu, I left my entire heart on the floor. There was no emotional stone unturned. It was a beautiful and eye-opening experience to be in a position where I had to verbalize my emotional intentions, musical preferences and ideas, and then identify if what we’d come up with had hit the target. And it was exhilarating to do so with such an open-minded and open-hearted musician.”

That initial encounter would lead to more meetings with Mindeman which, eventually, formed the backbone of the project. With his pen joining with Gazarek’s on a handful of tracks and his piano serving as a key ingredient, Mindeman’s input would prove indispensable. So too would the contributions of other notable figures in Gazarek’s organically-growing circle – alto saxophonist Josh Johnson, whose horn adds volumes to the album and whose head formulated its opening arrangement; bassist Alex Boneham and drummer Christian Euman, a pair that followed the singer into all sorts of uncharted territories; pianist/organist Larry Goldings, who co-wrote two standout songs with Gazarek; and trombonist Alan Ferber, whose artful horn orchestrations helped to shape a trio of tracks.

In comparing Thirsty Ghost to earlier Gazarek albums – formative statements like Yours (Native Language, 2005), Live at The Jazz Bakery (Native Language, 2006) and Return To You (Native Language, 2007); or the Blossom Dearie-indebted Blossom & Bee (Palmetto, 2012); or the duo recital Dream in the Blue, with pianist Josh Nelson – there really is no comparison. Thirsty Ghost is emotionally raw, its intricate arrangements rich, deep, and often dark. And its honesty is beyond reproach. Some listeners may already know Gazarek’s voice, but here they can actually hear the woman behind it. From the very beginning, on Johnson’s tensely-shifting arrangement of “Lonely Hours,” she aims to reveal. “I love this song, but there’s more to it. Its universal truth is something we can all identify with – pacing the floor at 3 a.m., vacillating between [loathing] and longing for the person who broke your heart, and completely desperate for a shift in heart and mind.” That unsettled feeling permeates the performance, setting Gazarek on a path heretofore unknown in her discography. From there she travels to the Caribbean for a coolly modernistic take on “Never Will I Marry” that acknowledges her post-divorce disconnect from the titular concept. Then she brings personally-topical modern pop into the picture with Sam Smith’s “I’m Not The Only One,” uses the original “Easy Love” to remind us that sowing the seeds of a relationship shouldn’t be difficult, and delivers a work of gorgeous devastation with a heartbreaking, reharmonized look at “I Get Along Without You Very Well.”

As the journey continues, Gazarek pulls no punches. On Geoffrey Keezer’s arrangement of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” – a “Trent Reznor-meets-Game of Thrones” take, as he puts it – pent-up vocal fire is unleashed; with “Gaslight District” symbolism and analogy take center stage, with Gazarek exploring the idea of “a partner pulling the rug out from underneath your feet, making you question your own understanding of truth, reality and self;” and on Bjork’s “Cocoon” she enters a realm that’s both “terrifying and liberating” in its presentation of “vulnerable, adult ideas.” Each of those tracks, and others like Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe When I Fall in Love” and the poetically-blended “The River/River Man,” helps to tell Gazarek’s confessional story while dotting the path toward self-discovery. But it’s the closer – “Distant Storm,” a new take on pianist Brad Mehldau’s “When It Rains” with words from the singer – that truly sums things up. With a purposeful lyric, plus a narrative poem recited by Elling, it neatly represents the moral of what was learned and where Gazarek is now – happily remarried and fully invested in her current direction.

Life continues to serve as a classroom for this rising-star vocalist, but the classroom also serves as life. Today she is able to channel much of what she’s learned, both early on and more recently, into her teaching at her alma mater – the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. It was there, after growing up in Seattle where she cut her teeth in Scott Brown’s award-winning jazz program at Roosevelt High School, that Gazarek would experience growth issues familiar to many. And it’s there that she tries to help students surmount those obstacles.

“I identify so much with my students who enter into the program at USC feeling paralyzed by how little they think they know. I get it – I continue to feel this on a daily basis! There’s so much to know about this art form, and it’s tempting to let it stop us in our tracks. So the thing I try to bestow upon my students is the acceptance and welcoming of this feeling, the beauty of this feeling. If we can enter into any musical scenario free from judgment, full of curiosity for the things we do or do not know, or the things others do or do not know, it will be a much more enjoyable experience devoting our lives to this art form.”

As a product of formal jazz education, Gazarek is quick to acknowledge the incredible teachers and mentors who have helped her along the way – Brown, who set her on this path; vocalist Tierney Sutton, a model of vocal independence and purity; bassist John Clayton, Gazarek’s “jazz dad” and the man who produced Yours and Return To You – but she also aims to move beyond her youthful experiences by helping fledgling artists explore the questions that have increasingly informed her own work. “Who are you as a person and how do we get that to manifest in your art? What moves you as a person? What is going through your mind? What current events are striking you as something that we need to breathe life into? What kinds of music and grooves and chord progressions and instruments inspire you?” It’s through that process of inquiry, where Gazarek found her own answers, that she believes her students can find themselves.

Past experiences have undoubtedly influenced Gazarek’s path(s) in performing, writing and teaching, but it’s the present balance of those pursuits that seems to truly satisfy her.

“I’m incredibly grateful that USC allows and encourages its adjunct faculty to be out in the world. Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching. And if a full-time teaching position entered into the picture, I’d be delighted to make room for it. But I also really love performing. I love what I’m doing and I love where it’s headed. And if that happened to a higher degree, I’d also want to create room for it and make it work. But I also try to avoid indulging in the feeling that it’s not enough. These days, especially in this era of social media, it’s so easy to get caught up in what other people are doing. I just try to keep my eyes in my own lane and remember that 21-year-old Sara would be really excited about the life that 37-year-old Sara gets to live. It’s easy to think, ‘that person has more Spotify streams’ or ‘I didn’t get called to do that festival this year,’ but it’s important for me to pinch myself and realize I got to play with a musical idol this year, I released an album featuring my best friends and mentors, and my mom really likes it. When I keep my eyes in my own lane, it’s a thrilling experience and an incredibly joyful place to be.”

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