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Sara Gazarek makes her big Jazz Alley weekend debut

I’ve never really been interested in performing. I’ve always 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 be ready for where that goes.

Sara Gazarek owes a lot to the Seattle community that fostered her love of jazz. She returns home for a major Jazz Alley run, July 10-13, with her longtime accompanist Josh Nelson, to say thanks.
Andrew Southam

Sara Gazarek — pronounced GAH-ZA-REK — is the living embodiment of a dream come true. She’s also a living example that good things happen to truly good people.

Born and raised in Seattle, the Blossom & Bee recording artist attended Roosevelt High School intending to study theater. She found herself on a slightly different course when she entered the high school’s esteemed jazz program under the leadership of award-winning director Scott Brown. He nurtured in her a passion for jazz that culminated in New York City’s Essentially Ellington competition her senior year.

It was a moment she will never forget. “I walked out onstage at Avery Fisher Hall, had just had this lengthy conversation with Wynton Marsalis, was thinking, ‘God what an accessible, humble human being, this was so cool the people are like this in the genre. I’m 18 but have a voice here. I’m allowed to breathe life into these songs,’” she recalled in a June 30th phone interview.

While in New York City, Gazarek had also gone to see jazz pianist McCoy Tyner at the Blue Note, and began to dream that one day, that could be her onstage. It happened for real this past Mother’s Day, when she and her band played the famed Blue Note as headliners — the same weekend her alma mater was in town to compete in the Essentially Ellington competition. Full circle, baby. “To know that … that day I had decided I wanted to be a jazz musician, I wanna perform at the Blue Note and here I am performing 14 years later the same weekend that these kids might be having the same thought that I’m having,” she said. “It came full circle and it made me realize how indebted I am to music education, Seattle, and Roosevelt High School and particularly, Scott Brown.”

The L.A.-based Gazarek will live out another dream when she returns home to perform at Seattle’s Jazz Alley, July 10-13, as a headliner. While she’s played Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley before, several times, it’s always been mid-week. The big names go on the weekends. She’s ready to show what she’s made of, and to dedicate the four-night shows to the city that shaped her as a jazz artist. “It always means a lot to come back to perform in Seattle just because it reminds me of how unlikely it is that I would be where I am if these very specific things hadn’t fallen into place,” she explained. “I love my life, and I love what I do. It’s a joy to know that I’m able to finally come back for a four-night run and give thanks to the community and the place that gave me this thing that changed my life for the better.”

Gazarek and her trusty band, the band from her last record — pianist Josh Nelson, drummer Zach Harmon, and bassist Hamilton Price — plan to play audience favorites and some new tunes they’ve been working on for a year or so, as well as some really new tunes from a month back. They love to dip heavily into the Great American Songbook, of course. But they also love to whip out some contemporary songs by some of their favorite artists. “We’re all big believers in the jazz tradition in the band and do a number of covers of standards and of the songs that mean a lot to me,” she said. “I always need to have a connection too, but we also are inspired by some contemporary composers, so we have some Nick Drake songs, some Laura Mvula tunes, and then of course some of those original compositions.”

Gazarek will also bring on one of her “favorite guitar players in the whole world,” Larry Koonse.Of course friends and family will be in the audience. But we also have a lot of musician friends that we’re hoping will stop by and we’ll have some special guests sitting on some tunes,” she added.

Fans of the 32-year-old jazz artist know that when they go to her show, they’ll enjoy a fresh set of songs sung sweetly, with an effortless charm and grace, lots of humor, and maybe one or two surprises. Gazarek makes it all look so easy, but she is one of the few artists able to convey a brightness to her emotions with pitch-perfect technique and an innate feel for the notes — when to let a moment linger, when to let it fly, fly away.

It’s taken her a few years to grow into the role of the jazz performer without appearing to perform. Gazarek’s one of those artists who prefers to express rather than impress. “I feel like performers sometimes kind of fall into two categories. There are the people I feel really impressed by. Wow you have a really beautiful instrument, wow, you can scat really well, and that’s really cool you can do that. Or, there are the people that express something. That’s the difference between impressing and expressing. When I’m still thinking about a concert days later, it’s always the latter, 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.”

Good thing for Gazarek, she sings before jazz audiences. They tend to expect and embrace the fun times and the solemn times of an artist’s mood, provided the swing is genuinely from the heart. They also tend to want to go on the same emotional ride with her, which she appreciates. “I think in jazz, the audiences are really intelligent. They know when it’s a performance and they know when it’s an experience,” she said, which is good, because she’s not out there to look the part.

“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,” she continued. “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. 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].”

When Gazarek talks about her long-time accompanist, which she almost always does, the singer’s usual composure slips. She gets very emotional about the man who’s been with her musically throughout the arc of her young career: the fabulously talented pianist and composer Josh Nelson. The two share a very special bond that’s most evident onstage. Nelson — a jazz artist in his own right — literally can read Gazarek’s mind as they float along from one song to another. He senses when to come in and fill in her spaces accordingly. A working relationship like that doesn’t happen every day, and she’s well aware of how blessed she is.

“Josh and I have been working together for 10 years. He’s really the only long-standing member of the Sara Gazarek band in every formation that we’ve ever had. So throughout the 10 years that we’ve been working together, there’s just been all this trust and rapport and depth that has developed,” she marveled. “We realized eight or 10 months ago, that we really had this special relationship that I feel like only a few people get the opportunity to experience in music, where you grow up together and know each other on this kind of soul-ular level. I trust Josh more than anyone in the universe musically and it’s just a real vulnerable and exposed and beautiful experience to get to play in such an exposed way with him.”

So naturally, they decided to do an album together.

Before finishing her next solo album, Gazarek and Nelson will go into the recording studio in the fall to flesh out their duo project, a labor of love eight months in the making. Jazz Alley audiences will hear one or two preview tracks from that album, for sure. “We’ve kind of cultivated this repertoire based on some of the Sara Gazarek band arrangements that we’ve reduced for a duo setting, but then also a lot of brand new arrangements and a ton of original material that we’re really excited to continue to delve into,” she said.

After her Jazz Alley run, Sara Gazarek will play in Portland, OR’s Lan Su Chinese Garden, July 15, and then do a duo show with Nelson, July 17, back at L.A.’s Blue Whale, before hitting the Indy Jazz Fest, September 12-13.

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