Photo: Shervin Lainez
SARA GAZAREK is a vocalist and educator based in Los Angeles. Hailed by the LA Times as ‘the next important jazz singer’, she seamlessly combines the intimacy of singer/songwriter stylings with the musical and improvisational elements of jazz. Two of Gazarek’s five albums were produced by bassist John Clayton and she has performed with pianist Billy Childs and fellow vocalist Kurt Elling, as well as featuring on his 2015 album Passion World. Gazarek’s upcoming album sees the Seattle native delve further into jazz interpretations of contemporary works by songwriters like Nick Drake, Dolly Parton and Sam Smith. Nicky Schrire chatted with Sara about her new recording and the importance of mentorship in music:
LondonJazz News: Let’s start off with the music. You’re releasing your fifth(!) studio album later this year. It’s called Thirsty Ghost and marks something of a shift for you. You described your sound on the album as “more muscular”, which I loved because I can identify those added timbres and it’s an exciting development to hear for those who’ve followed your singing evolution. You also have new collaborators in the form of a horn section and various arrangers. Those nuts and bolts differences aside, how would you describe the differences in the emotional content of this document?
Sara Gazarek: This is the first album I’ve ever made that tells a whole-hearted story. A few years ago, my dear friend and mentor, Kurt Elling, sat me down and urged me to walk away from what I thought people wanted from me, 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”.
For so long, I’d subscribed to this idea that audiences wanted to feel happy. But, years later, I was faced with the undeniable truth that, if this genre is in fact rooted in the value system of authenticity and genuine expression, it was my duty as an artist to look at my life and ask if I was actually breathing truth into songs that reflected my human experience.
I started collecting repertoire that spoke to what I was living, in that moment, just for the purpose of exploring what this new approach might look and feel like. I worked with new collaborators to shake off the cobwebs and feel present in the responsibility of the musical choices being made. And that’s the beauty of life – I was choosing songs that happened to represent this chaotic, very adult life I was living. Rife with infidelity, deception, eventual empowerment, space, healing, growth, and eventual love. It’s inevitable that over four years, there would be significant change and growth. Looking back, it’s almost like a beautifully orchestrated ballet that brought me to an inevitable place that I’ve longed to be, for quite some time.
LJN: Jazz has a tradition of mentorship, both formal and informal. What role has good guidance or mentorship played in your musical development?
SG: I’m grateful to my mentors through my collegiate education. They helped shape me into the musician I am today, opened doors, and guided me through them. John Clayton was a particularly kind and loving support system for me as a young musician. I’ll forever call him my “pop-pop” – and fortunately, I think a lot of young musicians feel this kind of connection with John. He’s made it a priority to be a guiding light.
I’m also a bit blown away by the sense of community in the jazz genre – musicians wanting to help each other out, guest on each others albums, share contacts, invite up on stage, recommend each other for gigs, interview each other (wink wink) for jazz publications, etc. I’ve been fortunate to make some very important friends, and to be taken under the wing of a few very kind and talented souls. This is family. And I’m grateful for it.
LJN: You’re a part-time lecturer at the University of Southern California and you also adjudicate regularly. What pearl(s) of wisdom do you find yourself repeatedly sharing with your students?
SG: I often find myself reminding young people that they have a place in this genre, no matter where they are on their journey – that it’s accessible and incredibly exciting to explore. This was something that wasn’t instilled in me early on. Unfortunately, I had a mentor who subscribed to the idea that young people didn’t deserve visibility, couldn’t contribute, hadn’t paid their dues, didn’t belong in the genre. This person spoke about it often.
This falsehood was challenging to unlearn, but incredibly important to let go of. While it’s true that it takes a LONG time to master one’s instrument, musical concepts/vocabulary, etc, we ALL are masters of expression in our everyday lives. And if young people can learn to be present, and to love/feel empowered/excited by the expressive vocabulary that they bring to the table every day, this genre will continue to thrive for decades to come.
LJN: What are your thoughts, if any, about being a woman in this particular industry? Is it something you’re aware of? If so, has this awareness shaped your approach to music or music business?
SG: I think the tides are shifting, and I’m grateful for it. As someone who came into the industry almost 20 years ago, I’ve been called “sweetheart” (and yes, with THAT tone) countless times, had to sit through so many poor renditions of singer (and female musician) jokes, been invited to hotel rooms to talk about “my career”, etc. I’ve often fought to be seen as an equal, and am grateful that my equality wasn’t usually challenged. But the dynamic is palpable, and all of us have witnessed it first hand.
There’s something happening in this younger generation, though – a conversation that’s taking place, a willingness to open up to different perspectives, a hunger to bridge the gender gap, to call out these micro-aggressions for what they are. I’m in awe of my students at USC for initiating round-table discussions to make things different, to make things better. They are the future, and the future is bright!
LINK: Sara Gazarek’s website