Young and up-and-coming vocalist Sara Gazarek was raised in the Pacific Northwest -- Seattle to be exact -- without a lot of exposure to jazz in her youth. She discovered the joy of jazz vocals in high school and credits her high-school band director with having a huge impact on her development and subsequent future course. Because of her youth, sophistication, and choice of material to sing, Gazarek has the potential to turn a whole new generation on to the simple yet complex beauty of jazz vocals. As a high-school senior, Gazarek was awarded the prestigious Ella Fitzgerald Foundation Outstanding Jazz Vocalist Award. She was given this award at the Essentially Ellington Festival at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City, with Wynton Marsalis.
Gazarek attended college in Los Angeles in 2000 and studied at the Thornton School of Music at USC, learning the often difficult business of jazz singing from people like bassist John Clayton and singers Tierney Sutton and Carmen Bradford. In college, Gazarek spent two years working with elementary-school children in an inner-city school. In 2003, Gazarek received the Down Beat Student Music Award for Best Collegiate Vocalist. Shortly after the resulting publicity in the magazine, Gazarek was asked to join a tour of jazz women vocalists -- including Oleta Adams, Karrin Allyson, and Diane Schuur -- as part of the "Concord Jazz Festival on Tour" series of concerts, which traversed the U.S. in 2004.
Bassist and USC mentor Clayton produced both of Gazarek's albums, Yours, her critically hailed 2005 debut that focused on Great American Songbook standards, and the more recent Return to You. On both albums, she's accompanied by the same band, all Los Angeles-based musicians, including pianist Josh Nelson, bassist Erik Kertes, and drummer Matt Slocum. Return to You on the Native Language Music label showcases Gazarek's thoughtful arrangements on familiar tunes by good songwriters, including Leonard Cohen, Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, Gillian Welch, and Harry Connick, Jr. She also offers a powerful rendering of "Northern Lights," a song written by tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake.
When record labels came knocking on her door after the Concord Jazz Festival tour, Clayton advised her that she'd have a lasting career if she continued to do her homework and kept striving to become a better musician. Most recently, Gazarek released a live album entitled Live at the Jazz Bakery, also on Native Language Music. Anyone who's seen Gazarek in concert or heard her eclectic approach on her albums will realize that she is likely to have a significant impact on the contemporary jazz scene for many years to come. ~ Richard J. Skelly