A moment with Sara Gazarek on her new album "Thirsty Ghost"
1. How did you get into music/jazz? Any defining moments?
I was fortunate to have attended a really wonderful high school in Seattle that happened to have an internationally acclaimed jazz program. The director, Scott Brown, led the jazz band and the jazz choir, and was an incredibly passionate and inspiring educator (and jazz musician!), which afforded all of us the chance to learn from a seasoned pro — who taught us how to transcribe and write lyrics to Miles Davis solos, instead of singing unison versions of somewhere over the rainbow. Without his guidance, I’m not sure how I would have come to jazz, or how my life would have turned out. Which speaks to the importance of music and arts education in public schools — without it, who knows where I’d be.
2. Your new [GORGEOUS] album "Thirsty Ghost" is out now and up for a bunch of Grammy nominations - tell me about the why behind this album - what was the direction you wanted to go with it? Is it a conceptual album? What are the concepts you wanted to pursue with this work? I see both pop tunes re-imagined and jazz standards re-imagined - tell me ALL the details (that you care to share)!
Thanks! Thirsty Ghost technically isn’t up for any GRAMMY nominations — like many albums out there, it was up for consideration... Which is still exiting, but we’ll see where things end up in the next round (the actual nominations).
The creation of this album was an incredibly important process for me, albeit entirely new. Most of my previous works had been conceptualized before the creative process began, whereas this record came from a four year process of writing, collaborating, travel, deep introspection, growth, and selecting songs that reflected specific experiences in my life. There wasn’t an end goal, or a record at the end of the tunnel. I just wanted to see what it felt like to actually breathe authentic experiences into my art, and it just so happened that at the end of that 4 year period, there was a beginning, middle, and end to the journey.
3. For the physical arrangements, what were the challenges and joys of writing for an ensemble? What's it like to rehearse an ensemble? Did you record everything in a few days or did different songs at different times over weeks or months?
The process was long and beautiful — many of the songs were arranged with Stu Mindeman, over a series of visits to Chicago and LA. We emailed back and forth about ideas and inspiration, and eventually, things culminated in a trio performance in Los Angeles. Later, we decided to add 3 horns, and by the time the album was being conceived, we added background vocals, percussion, and organ.
Piecing together that many layers can feel a bit overwhelming, but this album was an exercise in trusting my collaborators and friends to help bring this vision to life.
4. I'm loving the vocal scatting throughout the album - how do you feel about scatting and vocal improvisation in general? How do you practice it? Do you have any words of encouragement for the novice scatters out there?
Scatting is a mixed bag. I think, particularly in jazz academia, harmonic/melodic based improvisation is a value system that carries a lot of weight. There’s a great amount of focus placed on this kind of expression, but I think it’s just one element of the improvisational tool box.
Some of my favorite improvisers don’t “scat” in the truest sense of the word. Cecile McLorin Salvant, Nancy Wilson, and Irene Kral are utilizing mastery of instrument combined with mastery of diction, placement, vocal quality, phrasing, melody, etc as a means to and end of genuinely and authentically expressing true emotion and human experience in the moment — without scatting.
As an audience member, I’d always prefer to have someone express versus impress. And blowing without the expressive quality is... Just that... Blowing.
5. Who are your vocal influences? What jazz albums are your all-time favourites for the people at home?
Some of my all time favorite albums are: Ella + Basie (Sunny Side of the Street), Nancy Wilson + Cannonball Adderly, Carmen McRae + Betty Carter (Duets), Irene Kral + Alan Broadbent (Where Is Love), Kurt Elling (Flirting with Twilight), Kate McGarry (Girl Talk), and so many more. Other singers who inspire me... The other vocalists in my vocal quartet, säje (Amanda Taylor, Erin Bentlage, Johnaye Kendrick), Michael Mayo, Gina Saputo, Luciana Souza, Gretchen Parlato, Sara Bareilles, Laura Mvula, Brandi Carlile, etc etc etc.
6. Anything you'd like to say to the young women in jazz?
The conversation regarding women in jazz is continuously changing, because of young women and young men. Thank you for continuing to ask questions, to challenge the norm, to realize and welcome more opportunities for all of us. It’s a beautiful space to express ourselves, and there’s room for all of us. Keep it up.