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Sara Gazarek breathes vocal theater on Jazz Alley opening night

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On opening night at the Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley gig in downtown Seattle last Thursday, headliner Sara Gazarek, 32, achieved a milestone in her career trajectory. She stepped naturally into the role of the jazz vocalist she’d always wanted to be.

In a phone interview from L.A. just a few days before Gazarek’s July 10-13th run, the Seattle native spent a lot of time sorting through the kind of performers who impress her. There are the performers who can scat and sing really well, and then there are those who “express something.” She’s all about the expression, when “I’m still thinking about a concert days later, … that I’ve felt something and they changed my mood and my perspective on life, and that never happens in that impressed state. It’s always kind of like, an hour later, I’m thinking about something else.”

Standing onstage in a luscious Grecian red dress with her band — pianist Josh Nelson, drummer Zach Harmon, and bassist Hamilton Price, and special guest, guitarist Larry Koonse — Gazarek found herself naturally going places she might not have gone early on in her career. After warming up and cooling off with a standard (“Down With Love”), fan favorites (“Blackbird/Bye Bye Blackbird,” “Some Of These Days”), tracks from previous albums, the 2005 Yours and 2012 Blossom & Bee, the jazz vocalist got over opening night jitters and got serious.

She opened up to the audience completely, no holds barred, by disappearing into the blood and guts of a very poignantly sad love song she wrote with lyricist Cliff Goldmacher and her longtime accompanist Josh Nelson. “I Don’t Love You Anymore” gave Gazarek time and space to flex her vocal muscles. But more importantly, it gave her the chance to show the Jazz Alley audience what she’s made of.

The song is about two exes running into each other on the street, one of them quite happy with another love, the other pretending to be in the face of anguish. Gazarek started off in Seattle’s Roosevelt High School pursuing theater when she found jazz choir. Theater and jazz found her in the zone as she told the story in the character of the jilted ex, still carrying a torch but expected to put on a show of nobility and class.

Gazarek possesses firm control over a fantastic voice, from years and years of training (she also teaches jazz at the University of Southern California). Already blessed with the chops to pull off any song, she proceeded to go beyond, to build emotion from raw openness — something she couldn’t have done as a nervous 18-year-old just starting out.

“I’ve always been comfortable in front of a crowd, but I think that there have been parts of myself that I’ve been scared to show. I didn’t want people to know that I was young, or think I was too young, and so I was probably more serious than I needed to be on the stage,” Gazarek said in that June 30th phone interview. “And now, I’m still young, but I’m 32, and I’ve been performing and I think even at Jazz Alley, this is probably like the ninth, was it nine years ago that I began performing there? I’m just not scared to laugh in front of the audience, or crack a joke, or make fun of myself, or do songs that are really intense for me, that mean something really specific that I’m still dealing with emotionally and I might feel like I’m on the verge of tears the entire time but it’s not terrifying to go there in front of the audience, because I know that we’re all there for each other.”

After about the fourth or fifth tune on the set list, Gazarek freely, easily, sincerely went there as only she could. She immersed herself in the role of the jilted ex trying like hell to take the high road. Every betrayal, every hurt, every struggle in the conflict between what was and what should be playing out in that fantastic, pitch-perfect voice, able to convey warmth and heartbreak in a split second.

This is a singer who could coast on sweet perfection, avoiding the messy breakups and the uncomfortable parts of life in her performances. This is a song she’s performed before at Tokyo’s Cotton Club last year. But never quite like this. Never with such conviction and almost barely pent-up resentment. She proved she could handle the rough, raw, ragged emotion this material brought up in a deeper way last week. With her voice nearly to the breaking point, a conversation spun into vocal gold, Gazarek took the Jazz Alley audience with her on such an in-depth emotional journey. Everyone felt what she felt.

“I’ve never really been interested in performing. I’ve always kind of been interested in experiencing something in the moment and knowing that on any given night, just based on what’s been going on in my life, any tune can take on any other meaning and to kind of be ready for where that goes,” Gazarek said, prophetically. “And of course the performance is part of it — the master of instrument, the ability to sing in tune, be aware of dip songs and vowel shapes and support and breath and connectivity in the vocal chords, and you know all of the BS that we study in school really is just a tool for vocabulary and the ability to be expressive in that moment. So my ability to sing in tune and have a beautiful instrument, think about vibrato, all that has got to go on the back shelf, so that in the moment I’m able to use those tools to get something across.”

By the time Gazarek tangled with this part of the song — “I can’t say you’re the only one, who’s got everything I need, And all the promises you gave to me, I never could believe. But I’m all about forgiveness, that’s what broken hearts are for, I wish you both the very best, the world is flat, the sky is green. And I don’t love you anymore” ­— most of the audience was crying.

In the next tune, Billy Joel’s “So It Goes,” Gazarek was crying. She does best in songs where she can manipulate the tempo, slow it down in spots, pinpoint certain inflections for the groove and the feel, and express as only she can. She made the most of the spaces in this song, lingering in the silences without a word, with barely a hint of sound, fusing thought and feeling in a swirling, fading mass. The room got so quiet, as she held the audience spellbound, waiting for the next lyrical fulfillment. The audience doesn’t do that for anybody. They found their Nancy Wilson, the same legend Gazarek looks up to as the pinnacle of her personal and professional success — the kind of expressive, impressive performer who leaves a mark long after the performance is over. “When I’m listening to Nancy Wilson, I’m not thinking, ‘God, what a beautiful instrument.’ I’m feeling everything that she’s doing. So that’s the goal. I’m not there yet, I’m workin’ on it [laughs].”

Sara Gazarek reached the pinnacle of her career at last week’s Jazz Alley show, showing that she could not only bring in the weekend crowd, but leave a lasting impression as a phenomenal vocalist. She’s more than just a pretty face with a pretty voice. She’s a unique jazz presence destined for the kind of greatness of a Nancy Wilson.

She carried with her an amazing band and amazing touches on a varied set list that manages to capture all sides to her — the silly, flirtatious Gilberto number, “O pato,” the larger-than-life bravado of Sophie Tucker in “Some Of These Days,” the charming and clever riff off Blossom Dearie’s “Unpack Your Adjectives,” the Spartan disruption of Laura Mvula’s “Make Me Lovely,” the fanciful classical dream in the updated “Blackbird/Bye Bye Blackbird” medley.

The singular beauty of this singer and composer, the reason she can pack ‘em in, lies in what she does with her amazing voice. She shows truth, kindness, and love. Every so often, if the audience is patient — and they are with her — she will reveal a conflict amidst her strength, pain within so much hope, darkness in the light, a fire despite the sleek, the smooth, and the supple, the real Sara Gazarek.

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