Interview: Critically acclaimed jazz artist Sara Gazarek coming to Cabaret

Posted by admin on February 3, 2015

By Tom Alvarez, Indianapolis Performing Arts Examiner
September 11, 2014

The LA Times called her “the next important jazz singer,” so who better than Sara Gazarek to perform at the Cabaret at the Columbia Club as it partners with Indy Jazz Fest to present her in “Sara Gazarek: Blossom & Bee.” Gazarek will appear on Friday Sept. 12 at 8 p.m. and Saturday Sept. 13 at 7 p.m.

Blossom Dearie is the reference in “Blossom & Bee.” Dearie, 1924–2009, was an American jazz singer, remembered for her light and girlish voice, and is one of Gazarek’s major music influences. The show’s title is also the name of Gazarek’s 2012 CD which Nick Mondello of Jazz Times said “has all the beauty, bite and superb workings of a winner. It’s as good–or better –than some recent Grammy®-nominated or winning female vocalist efforts.”

Songs that Dearie was known for as well as some of songwriter Gazarek’s original tunes, all of which are on the album, will be performed during her show. She will be accompanied by her Los Angeles based trio consisting of pianist Josh Nelson, bassist Hamilton Price and drummer Zach Harmon.

When not touring all over the country, Gazarek, who is on the faculty of her alma mater, the University of Southern California, leads the school’s award-winning vocal jazz ensemble and teaches privately.

Recently caught up by phone with Seattle native Gazarek from her L.A. home to talk about her show, career and future plans.

Have you ever played Indy?

I guess not.

What do you know about the Cabaret?

Just that they have a great reputation for really great music. I have a couple of friends, like James Torme,who have done the Cabaret and they have had wonderful things to say about it.

I noticed in your bio that Tierney Sutton, who played the Cabaret in June, was one of your teachers.

She was a big, important mentor of mine. I studied with her at USC and actually lived with her nanny for a year. She is a very good friend.

Tierney is all about lyric interpretation as opposed to vocal tricks. Is that something you share in common?

Yes, we do share that in common. Tierney was a great teacher in that she allowed us to be what we were drawn to. There were some students who were really scat-heavy and vocal gymnastic types and there were some that were much more focused on the story—breathing life into these tunes.

Have you ever performed musical theater?

I did in high school, but then I discovered jazz when I was a junior. I walked into the band room at school thinking I was going to audition for a jazz choir and have yet another opportunity to perform. Eventually, though, I was fortunate enough to study under Scott Brown, an incredibly passionate, beautiful educator, and receive a pretty general education of the art form. I found I could be just me on stage and that was when I really fell in love with jazz. I was really comfortable on stage and felt okay with people looking at me, moving around and different other things, but I worked to make sure that all the movements I was doing were coming from a place of sincerity.

You are often compared to singers like Jane Monheit. When she performed at the Cabaret she sang a couple of show tunes as written. Do you ever do that?

No. (laughs). I would say not. I like to sing some of those older tunes and every once in a while will sing them without an arrangement. There is a lot of importance in just doing something in a really free and open way and not relying on really heavy arrangements all the time. She has one of the best voices in the industry. I have nothing but love and respect for her but I would say that is one difference in our approach to music. She has a little bit more of a foot in the door of Cabaret.

Who do you listen to?

Like most jazz singers, I like Ella Fitzgerald, Sara Vaughan and Anita O’Day but I am also really moved by Kate McGarry and Kurt Elling.

How about other genres? What do you like?

I like soul stuff like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway and I am also a huge Harry Nilsson fan.

Tell me about your teaching.

I have been a teacher at USC for the past four years but I have been teaching for about eight. Pretty much since graduating from college, I was on the road and doing workshops. When I was in town I did a lot of clinics and private lessons and teaching in different conservatories and ended up back at USC. It’s really exciting to have a pulse on what is motivating young people and helping them flip the switch and turn the light bulb on.

Do you also impart your wisdom regarding show “business” to your students?

I think the biggest advice I ever received was from John Clayton and it was that if you do your homework you’ll always have a place in this genre which is really true. There is always something to learn, always something to do, but the second piece of that is that everybody has their past and there is no past that is more valuable than any another. I always tell my students that “this is my experience,” but I would also encourage them to hear others and trust that what they are doing is right for them and that it feels good.

Are you working on a new CD by any chance?

I am. We haven’t really announced it yet but Josh my pianist and I are working on a project. We are going into a studio to record in December. It is going to be produced by legendary music figure named Al Schmitt.

What do you like to write about?

For me, it is important to write about things I have experienced or am kind of working through. I think those things comes easier and are a lot more fun to sing and it is also little bit more interesting for the audience when you are singing to a concept or something universal. One of our newest songs is a song that Josh and I wrote together which is about an experience I had with my mom when she was in the hospital, and a song we wrote before called “I Don’t Love You Anymore” is about the lies we tell ourselves like getting over someone, especially when you run into them and they seem to be doing really well and you have to tell them “I am doing great.” And then a Duke Ellington tune we have been doing a lot lately. It’s called “Single Petal of a Rose.” It didn’t have lyrics so I wrote some about how we can’t make a decision based on determining whether someone “Loves me, loves me not” with a single rose petal.

You have said that you enjoying doing songs that you “have a relationship with”. What does that mean?

It’s fun to have songs that have played some role in my life along the way, like “Some of These Days,” I sang it in my sophomore year in high school in a vaudeville review in which I was chosen to play my first solo role as Sophie Tucker. My mom sent me a video of me singing that so afterwards it became an addition to the band’s book and later became one of the tracks on the “Blossom and Bee” CD with Larry Goldings on organ and John Pizzarelli on guitar.

Do you interact with the audience?

At this point in my career I feel really great about bringing the entire spectrum of who we [she and the band] are as people to the show. When we were young we had to prove that we were serious and we knew what we were doing. We took it seriously and now we are at a point where we have been doing it for ten years, have toured extensively, have some CDs under our belt and continue to grow. For the most part I know it is a lot more fun when I am allowed to show people that I am a multi-dimensional person and that there are moments of real genuine laughter and some real genuine sadness and that everybody is invited along for the ride. My hope is that when people leave, they walk away not feeling impressed that they witnessed something they have not seen before or something nobody else can do, but more that they were brought along for this expression—this true and comfortable invitation to a real experience.

Do you enjoy the meet and greets afterwards, like the one you will be doing after your Cabaret shows?

It’s fun to be on stage with the band. The music changes every night and I never know where the songs are going to take me emotionally. But to see and shake hands with people who have paid money, found baby sitters, paid for parking, and bought drinks are just participating—they are participants in the thing that I fell in love with years ago. It’s a great feeling to shake hands with people who have come out to support not just live music but my live music.

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