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 Wednesday, 25 November 2015
Sara Gazarek: “Blossom & Bee” (2012, Palmetto) PDF Print
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Monday, 18 June 2012

Blossom & Bee

Five years ago, upon the release of her second studio recording, I wrote, “If Sara Gazarek’s record debut (Yours) was auspicious, her follow-up (Return to You) is audacious.” Thus Blossom & Bee, her third studio release and first for Palmetto, leaves me in search of appropriate adjectives to signal yet another leap in the career of an original vocal talent, rooted in jazz while extending cross-genre appeal. How about stunning?


After a five-year hiatus from the recording studio, Gazarek had “years of unrecorded material to comb through” with Blossom Dearie the common denominator; seven of the twelve songs on Blossom & Bee have been recorded by Dearie. “I’ve always seen myself more as a lyric interpreter,” Sara says. “I’ve never been drawn to flashy vocal gymnastics, so I naturally fell in love with the simplicity of her voice and delivery… The humor and lightness of it, paired with her ability to cut to the center of a song, was always incredibly inspiring to me.” Yet this is not a tribute album to the late singer, Gazarek noting “some of these are songs she sang, and some of them are songs she will never hear.” Blossom & Bee continues Sara’s long-standing collaboration with pianist/composer Josh Nelson and marks her first with arranger/producer/keyboardist Larry Goldings, who joins in on piano, melodica and organ on several tracks. The core trio is anchored by bassist Hamilton Price and drummer Zach Harmon, with special guest John Pizzarelli on two tracks, including voice as well guitar on the title tune.



In addition to songs associated with Dearie, ranging from Rogers and Hart to Harold Arlen to Johnny Mercer to Schoolhouse Rock, the set includes the original title track and another cowritten by Gazarek and Nelson, and songs from Ben Folds, Mack David and Shelton Brooks. “I quickly learned that there is very little that Sara was unable to sing,” said Goldings, “whether it was odd-metered arrangements, songs with challenging intervals, feel-good swingers, or emotionally charged ballads.”


Sara Gazarek
A native of Seattle, Gazarek studied with John Clayton, Shelly Berg, Carmen Bradford and Tierney Sutton at USC’s Thornton School of Music. She learned her lessons well, bringing clearly articulated, versatile phrasing and solid intonation to a voice that straddles the cool of Karrin Allyson, the warm energy of Jane Monheit, and the folk-rock clarity of Joni Mitchell. Of the songs associated with Blossom Dearie, the opening “Everything I’ve Got” swings hard, bassist Price driving a swaying pulse, drummer Harmon filling with teasing brush strokes, and pianist Nelson fitting comfortably into Gazarek’s phrasing. Goldings’ arrangement of Harburg/Arlen’s “Down With Love” gives the standard a spicy kick, and again it’s Price with his foot on the swing accelerator; and again Sara’s interaction with her musicians, as well as her own internal rhythmic compass, pushes this track beyond “standard” mode. Sara wanted “Lucky to Be Me” to “express the excitement and light of being in love,” and by slowing the pace with a broad hint of a country waltz, she succeeds; it’s easy to imagine a slow dance hosted by Bonnie Raitt. The opening verse of “Tea for Two” is too often neglected, but not here, as Sara gives this classic a slowly swaying, sultry interpretation, caressing every word. Harmon’s melodic solo chorus is similarly gentle and flirty. Perfect.


“I’m Old Fashioned” also benefits from a slowed tempo that highlights Gazarek’s pure tones and subtle turns in phrasing and rhythm; she even adds glockenspiel, coating the track with a celestial wash. Josh Nelson’s piano and keyboard efforts are among his strongest contributions to the disc. Sara describes “The Lies of Handsome Men” as a “heartbreaking song,” one she had only heard sung by Blossom Dearie. Arranged as a voice/piano duet, Sara gives it her most heart-wrenching reading, filled with regret and self-awareness; Nelson’s accompaniment is equally delicate and wistful. Another Dearie staple closes the set, “Unpack Your Adjectives” (Schoolhouse Rock), augmented by Goldings on organ and a deep groove from Price and Harmon; the clever lyrics allow Sara to show off her vocal as well as rhythmic agility.

Of the remaining songs, Sara wanted to include Ben Folds’ “The Luckiest” as it was the first dance at her wedding. With Goldings adding organ to the trio, Sara opens with some Sutton-esque vocalese before launching into the first verse, putting a mild folk-rock glow on a song that indeed seems perfectly suited for a lovers’ dance. Another tribute to “the miracle” of love, Mack Davids’ “So This Is Love” first appeared on Gazarek’s out-of-print Live at Jazz Bakery, updated for the trio with a bossa rhythm and Sara’s Latinzed scat. John Pizzarelli’s guitar gilds the old Sophie Tucker hit, “Some of These Days” (Sheldon Brooks), arranged in a classic 20s swing style for voice and organ trio.

The two original tunes include the title song, written by Goldings, Gazarek and Bill DeMain and featuring a vocal duet between Sara and Pizzarelli, their voices blending beautifully-–in fact I like Pizzarelli’s harmonizing here as much as anything I have heard him perform vocally; Goldings adds the accordion-like melodica to his piano, bringing harmonic richness to the track. “Fly Away Birdie,” a collaboration between Nelson and Gazarek, addresses the theme of believing in one’s dreams; with the addition of Goldings on organ, the ensemble suggests a majestic “R&B meets country” band, Sara with a glowing drop of Bonnie Raitt.

 Really, every track glows on Blossom & Bee, and if Sara Gazarek’s earlier recordings signaled the potential of a mighty talent, then her latest confirms her place at the top of her generation of singer/songwriter/jazz artists.

Auspicious. Audacious. Stunning.


Blossom & Bee will be officially released on June 19th and available at major retail and online sources.


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