In the music world, mainstream success is a funny animal. Especially when that success comes for an artist/artists either doing things musically that have not been done for some time, or subscribing to a genre or style that does not often produce commercially popular acts. One of two trends seem to follow: Either the floodgates open for performers to come along and achieve success as cheap knockoffs of their predecessors, or, more positively, opportunities come along for worthy artists that might not have received such a measure of attention had the door not been opened ahead of time.
Jazz, though being one of the true American art forms, is a style that had not produced a wealth of crossover talent in the past several decades until artists like Norah Jones and Diana Krall began to break down barriers that hindered predominantly jazz-influenced vocalists and songwriters from effectively reaching mainstream audiences. Fortunately, it seems the cumulative effect of such artists’ success has been fairly beneficial to the second of the aforementioned trends. Should proof be necessary, one would need look no further than Return to You, the second album by twenty-five-year-old L.A.-based performer Sara Gazarek. The album is a delightful reminder that thanks to artists like Jones and Krall, there is a potentially limitless world open to refreshing and vibrant jazz-inflected talents.
Produced by John Clayton, Jr. and skillfully executed by Gazarek’s band (pianist Josh Nelson, Erik Kertes on bass and guitar, Matt Slocum on drums), Return to You is at times intimate, delicate, and lilting, while at others sufficiently sassy and swinging. It is this blend that makes Gazarek’s work so appealing; she and her musical company deliver the proper emotions to give each song life and captivate the listener.
Like a Norah Jones, Gazarek not only lends considerable vocal talent and a radiant spirit to her work, but also pens some of her own songs while receiving significant writing contributions from the talented musicians with which she has surrounded herself (in Gazarek’s case, Nelson turns in some fine work). Unlike her forerunners, the rest of Gazarek’s material is drawn from a very diverse and contemporary well. Return to You features tracks, both well known and obscure, from a roster of prominent songwriters including Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel, Harry Connick, Jr., Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, and Leonard Cohen. One of Gazarek’s greatest accomplishments on this project is making much of the work sound like her own, seamlessly blending in with the mood and tone she establishes early in the record.
Gazarek does indeed start the album in fine fashion by breezing through the original “Let’s Try This Again”. Gazarek does not possess the husky, overtly sensual pipes of other female jazz singers, but instead exhibits a warm, consistent vocal tone which gives her a girl-next-door air without causing her sound to naïve or making her youthfulness an issue in selling any of the longing or worldliness in her songs. Sauntering through a few more songs (including her take on Mitchell’s “Carey”), Gazarek really begins to hit her stride on the album’s fourth cut, McCartney’s “Junk”, originally released on his 1970 solo debut. With its list of items like “Motor cars, handle bars, bicycles for two” and accompanying emotions “broken hearted jubilee”, the song seems almost an updated, more poignant “My Favorite Things”, and Gazarek delivers the song with the right mix of poise and sentiment.
Return to You‘s best sequence consists of four songs that come approximately midway through the album and starts with Bill C. Graham’s “Give Me Back That Old Familiar Feeling”, a song beginning with a sweetly accented vocal from Gazarek and building gradually to a restrained yet emotional plea. Next, Gazarek gives Joel’s recognizable “And So It Goes” a fresh and tender treatment, aided ably by Nelson’s melancholy piano. “I’ve Got a Great Idea” (the Connick contribution) brings a change of pace. Gazarek’s vocals are given their buoyancy from a organ/bass duet that, though low in timbre and tone, infuses the track with attitude. The Welch/Rawlings offering “Dear Someone” serves to both underscore the greatness of those songwriters while, yet again, allowing Gazarek to personalize the track as she gently weaves her way through it.
Of course, there a few slighter moments: “Just Let Me Be” is a bit heavy-handed at times, and unfortunately there is little new for Gazarek to contribute to the canon of cover versions that have been birthed in tribute to Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Yet Gazarek conveys such an earnest and charming personality that even her occasional miscue is easily forgiven.
Whether or not Sara Gazarek becomes some sort of smashing success with crossover impact remains to be seen, but she certainly has the talent, material, and spirit to make it happen. Return to You is an album that deserves to be widely heard.
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// Notes from the Road
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