Sara Gazarek has experienced an amazing ascension through the ranks of jazz vocalists. With a one two punch of intense touring and the release of her sensational debut album Yours, the twenty-five year old Gazarek has won the respect of old jazz pros and critics alike, no easy feat for a person just getting her feet wet in the music industry.
Yours featured Gazarek’s breezy, sharp vocals on jazz standards. Attacking the songs with clear tones a la Joni Mitchell with the lazy style of chanteuse Norah Jones, Gazarek ably places herself in a spot between Sarah Vaughan and Dianne Reeves. Gazarek’s follow up to her debut, Return to You, not only features Gazarek on many standards but on some wonderful originals written by her pianist Josh Nelson.
While Gazarek is a pleasure to listen to throughout, her backing band lifts the entire project to a heavenly jazz plane. Nelson, bassist Erik Kertes, drummer Matt Slocum and Grammy nominated bassist John Clayton sitting in the producer’s chair provide enticing instrumental arrangements, which slide in and out of Gazarek’s melodies with tremendous grace.
Outstanding covers include a version of Mitchell’s “Carey”, a somber mood piece which Gazarek and her band give a bouncy edge to; a rapturous take on Paul McCartney’s “Junk” and a flirty, faithful rendition of Harry Connick, Jr.’s “I’ve Got a Great Idea”. Gazarek nails saxophonist Seamus Blake’s “Northern Lights”, which approaches straight eventually giving the song a subtle swing. Less successful is Gazarek’s attempt at a more spiritual take on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. It’s still a great song, but Cohen’s original is brilliant. Gazarek deserves points for trying; however it’s extremely difficult to put your own bent on such a ubiquitous piece.
As good as the standards are the originals really shine. Gazarek and her band approach Nelson’s work minimally, allowing Gazarek’s voice to float upon waves of beautifully crafted tones. Clayton’s production is smart, keeping overdubs to an obscure few, keeping Gazarek’s chops pure.
Return to You is a welcomed relief from the overly produced and highly processed vocals of the Brittney’s, Jesse’s, and Ashlee’s of the pop world. Gazarek seduces, conjures and cajoles elements from her songs with the aplomb of pro’s long past. Sara Gazarek is the equivalent of a modern day vocal Icarus, flying ever closer to the craggy peaks concealing the jazz god’s on top Olympus. Hopefully, she can avoid the heat of her progenitors, and continue soaring.