Sara Gazarek, who snagged a vocal jazz award as a Roosevelt High School senior at New York’s Essentially Ellington competition in 2000 and who has since released six albums and toured around the world, plays Jazz Alley Jan. 31-Feb. 3.
Seattle jazz fans have been gaga over vocalist Sara Gazarek as far back as 2000, when she snagged a vocal jazz award as a Roosevelt High School senior at New York’s Essentially Ellington competition. Since then, the rest of the world has caught up to this talented musician from Seattle, thanks to six albums and an international touring schedule that has included a five-night stint at Manhattan’s Birdland, European tours and 14 appearances in Tokyo, among other career highlights.
But fans here and elsewhere may be surprised by the level of complexity and ripe tone of the new material Gazarek will debut at Jazz Alley Jan. 31-Feb. 3. Artfully arranged with backup vocals and horns — the trombone parts will be played by Gazarek’s Roosevelt High School band teacher, Scott Brown — the songs come from an album to be released later this year, “Thirsty Ghost.” As the title suggests, it’s a departure from the sunny Ella Fitzgerald-like persona Gazarek has projected most of her career.
And that’s no accident.
Before she put the album together, the singer went through a divorce, followed by a disastrous love affair, and she just didn’t feel all that sunny anymore.
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“It had almost started to feel false, every time I got on stage, trying to pretend like I was still this ingénue in a dress that just wanted to make people happy,” said Gazarek in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where she teaches part time at the University of Southern California.
Lucky for her, Gazarek had the help of a very important mentor — Grammy-winning jazz vocalist Kurt Elling, who appears on one track of the album — to help her find a new direction.
“Kurt said, ‘Listen. You are bigger than what you’re allowing your audience to experience,’ ” Gazarek recounted. “‘And they are bigger.’ It took me a year and a half to actually believe him.”
The result is a wondrous, questioning, atmospheric and rhythmically diverse brew of jazz, folk-rock and art song, with some Latin and pop flavors thrown in. On Sam Smith’s pining ballad of infidelity, “Not the Only One,” underpinned with Fender Rhodes keyboard and silvery backup vocals, Gazarek falls off notes with a sigh. On Björk’s “Cocoon,” she creates a moody, ambient feel, using her clear soprano as a wordless instrument.
A new arrangement of a signature piece that combines the Nick Drake song “Riverman” with a poem by Sara Teasdale features haunting bass clarinet. Pianist Brad Mehldau’s “When It Rains” is propelled by a quietly urgent danzón beat, to which Gazarek added lyrics about the promise of a storm.
“The story isn’t complete if I can’t acknowledge that it doesn’t end with a woman scorned,” said Gazarek. “There’s no growth without this storm, when the sky suddenly opens and you have this water that lets you blossom.”
For all this introspection, Gazarek has not abandoned her jaunty jazz past. On keyboard man Larry Golding’s “Easy Love,” she swings mightily, and on her singer-songwriter friend Jessie Palter’s “Spinning Around,” she turns in some technically dazzling scat singing.
“I’m really excited to have the opportunity to preview this stuff in Seattle,” she said. “It’s a kind of tip of the hat to all that Seattle has given me.”
Gazarek’s Roosevelt band director, Brown, could not be more pleased.
“She’s come so far,” he said. “This new music is very cool.”
Sara Gazarek + HORNS, 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, Jan. 31-Feb. 3; and 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 1-2; Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley, 2033 Sixth Ave., Seattle; $34.50; 206-441-9729, jazzalley.com. Also: Gazarek broadcasts live at 12:15 p.m. Friday, Feb. 1, on KNKX 88.5 (streaming online at knkx.org).