Live Jazz: Sara Gazarek at Vitello’s

By Don Heckman

Sara Gazarek’s performance at Vitello’s Saturday night called up recollections of the first time I heard her in action.  That was six years ago at The Vic in Santa Monica.  In my Los Angeles Times review I wrote that “she may well turn out to be the next important jazz singer.”

That quote has been reprinted many times since 2006, almost always in  misleading fashion as “the next important jazz singer” — without my qualifying phrase “she may well turn out to be…”  Which is probably just as well, since Gazarek still hasn’t reached that exalted level of accomplishment.

Sara Gazarek

Some of her show at Vitello’s repeated material from Gazarek’s appearance at The Vic – most notably a deeply swinging “You Are My Sunshine,” and a medley of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” with the ‘20s standard ‘Bye Bye Blackbird.”  Once again, both songs benefited from the side by side musical positioning.

Gazarek has said that she is more intrigued by the interpretation of lyrics than she is by melodic paraphrase.  And that overview was ever present in a two set performance reaching from such familiar standards as “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” “I’m Old Fashioned,” “So Lucky To Be Me” and “Everything I’ve Got Belongs To You” – to Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes” and originals by Gazarek and pianist Josh Nelson.

Every number – slow, fast, medium – was delivered by Gazarek with dynamic enthusiasm.  Rarely standing still, her lithe movements were sometimes directly responsive to the words she was singing, sometimes grooving with instrumental solos, and always an expression of her close relationship to a song.

Among the standout numbers: an intense rendering of the Gershwins’ “My Man’s Gone Now”; a quirky, unexpected but entertaining tribute to the legendary Sophie Tucker in “Some of These Days”; “O Pato,”  the obligatory boss nova (sung in Portuguese); and a pair of songs – including “And So It Goes” – sung with the sole accompaniment of Nelson’s empathetic piano.

Like several other musically adventurous singers – including Tierney Sutton and Gretchen Parlato – Gazarek’s arrangements often position her vocals in an intimate, almost instrumental-like relationship with the musicians in her ensemble.  And with players such as Nelson, bassist Hamilton Price, drummer Zach Harmon and special guest Larry Goldings on organ, the creative interplay that resulted had much to offer.

Her performance, including tunes from Gazarek’s new CD, Blossom and Bee, suggested that the potential I saw in her 2006 performance continues to grow.  But moving up to the next level will call for her to pay attention to a need for a richer palette of vocal tone and timbre.  When her adventurous lyrical and musical interpretations are enhanced by a more fully expressive sound, the sky may well be the limit for Gazarek’s future possibilities.

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