After Years of Steady Collaboration, Sara Gazarek and Josh Nelson debut as Vocal-Piano Duo with Dream in the Blue, Out August 5th 2016
Mix of Standards, Pop Arrangements and Originals Find Gazarek and Nelson Reaching New Heights of Artistic Maturity, Captured by Veteran Producer/Engineer Al Schmitt
Since 2002, vocalist Sara Gazarek and pianist Josh Nelson have nurtured an uncommonly strong musical bond. It’s no mere happenstance that Nelson played as a band member on all four of Gazarek’s albums, and she, in turn, sang on two of Nelson’s own recording projects. But over the past 18 months, this Los Angeles-based pair has taken their collaboration to a new level, touring extensively as a duo and developing a diverse repertoire that showcases their combined artistic maturation. Gazarek and Nelson recorded their new album Dream in the Blue (funded exclusively through the crowd-sourcing website pledgemusic.com) as a tribute to their extraordinary partnership.
“I remember feeling so incredibly comfortable with Josh that I held on tight and never looked back,” says Gazarek, recalling their very first gig in LA. “We’ve spent the last decade and more writing together, arranging, recording, making silly videos; essentially growing up together, personally and musically.” Nelson, in addition to citing his close rapport with Gazarek, sees Dream in the Blue as “a nice snapshot of our musical tastes in general — decidedly welcoming and accessible for a wide variety of audiences.”
The intimate qualities of Dream in the Blue largely derive from the duo’s earnest reflection on their individual experiences and confront both light and dark aspects of the human condition. “I realized the fragility of the gift of love,” Gazarek says of recent life changes, “and the importance of vulnerability and gratitude in our most precious relationships. The songs took on a searching heaviness that I hadn’t explored before.” Nelson similarly identifies a shift in approach that situates their work into a more introspective space: “I feel like I came back to my traditional jazz roots on this album. My previous records have been more modern and theme oriented. I also hear a strong ‘West Coast’ sound on this album, a forward-thinking energy but also a laid-back vibe that reflects where we both live and create music.”
Reflecting on a pivotal moment in her artistic journey, Gazarek recalls a bit of enduring wisdom she gained from her mentor, the acclaimed bassist John Clayton, “about how to be taken seriously, maintain a long-term trajectory and keep developing as an artist,” she says. “John calmly told me, ‘As long as you stay honest about your experience, continue to grow as a person and never stop doing your homework, you’ll always have a place in this music.’ I’ve lived by that rule for the last 11 years.”
The clarity and warmth of Dream in the Blue, captured vividly by veteran producer and engineer Al Schmitt (who has worked with legends such as Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, and Bob Dylan), contributes to the emotional arc of Gazarek and Nelson’s program. The album opens with a medley that joins the Beatles’ “Blackbird” with the standard “Bye Bye Blackbird” — an arrangement that first appeared on Gazarek’s debut album, Yours. “‘Blackbird’ is one of our signature arrangements,” states Gazarek, “and when Josh plays his piano intro at the top, fans immediately recognize it, so it made sense to revisit and celebrate it, and highlight how it’s grown over the years.” Another medley closes the album: Nick Drake’s “Cello Song” morphs into the standard “Without a Song,” again highlighting a link between the Great American Songbook and the world of contemporary music.
Along these lines is the Bonnie Raitt classic “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” which “speaks to a universal truth of knowing that love is over, but wanting to stay for just one more night,” says Gazarek. “In this arrangement we incorporated musical elements like changing time signatures and ritardandos to add a speech-like quality to the phrasing.” Laura Mvula’s “Father Father,” meanwhile, shows how the duo’s harmonic ingenuity can enhance the spirit of a song. With the swing tune “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” Gazarek harks back to the life-changing moment she first heard the album Ella & Basie! Here and on “No Moon at All,” Nelson also offers a nod to the legacy of stride piano: “I feel like a piano and voice record would not be complete without at least pointing to that rich tradition. In this setting it really helps the time move as well.”
Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” appears in a radical reworking that “encapsulates the whirlwind of torment that one experiences when love is lost,” says Gazarek. “The syncopated piano part, tempo, odd meter, and dynamics were carefully employed to give that effect.” “We tried to create a brand new energy and vibe,” Nelson adds, “so that the song might be thought of with a more ‘searching’ feel and message.” The upbeat Brazilian number “O Pato,” sung in Portuguese, also honors Ellington indirectly with its passing harmonic similarity to “Take the ‘A’ Train.”
The duo’s original songs reveal an evolving artistic depth and sophistication. “All Again” features lyrics and music by Nelson, who describes it as “a song about loss but also promise and hope.” “Petit Papillon” (“Little Butterfly”) evokes traces of “Moonlight in Vermont” and finds Nelson literally hitting his stride again. As Gazarek explains, “it’s a love song that compares the capture of a butterfly who loses her colors and wings, and a woman who falls for a man who leaves her once she’s fallen apart.”
“I Don’t Love You Anymore,” co-written with lyricist Cliff Goldmacher, tells the story of running into a former lover and finding him or her doing better than expected. “The lyrics encapsulate the lies that you would tell them, and yourself, to get through the interaction,” Gazarek shares. Finally, “Behind Me” evolved out of a song Nelson wrote years ago, with an entirely different lyric and story. “After a very challenging family health scare,” Gazarek recalls, “I was completely taken with the first few lines of Josh’s lyric, ‘I don’t know how I got here / maybe I should go on home, and leave this all behind me.’ That lyric directly tapped into to my internal dialogue during that time. I was grateful that Josh gave me the opportunity to process something so terrifying by writing a new lyric to his song.”
Over the years, Gazarek and Nelson have learned “to breathe together and anticipate where we’ll go, but react with joy and flexibility when we find each other in new terrain,” Gazarek says. “There’s so much freedom in the trust that we share — I know at any given moment, Josh will push me but also support me in a way I can’t imagine experiencing with anyone else.” Those inspired moments of finely honed communication between Gazarek and Nelson pervade Dream in the Blue, an album that exemplifies the art of the duo at its best.