Richard Dreyfuss received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Glenn Holland, a musician/composer turned high school music teacher, in the wonderful film Mr. Holland’s Opus. Holland is forced into retirement when the school board cuts funding for his department. Near the end of the movie, there is a warm scene that always prompts tears from yours truly, as his colleagues and former students present him with a surprise gift. They have gathered in the school’s auditorium to pay tribute to him by playing his yet to be publicly presented opus, a musical composition over which he has labored for most of his life. It is the opportunity for these former students to say thank you to a teacher who enriched their lives.
There is a young, rising star on the jazz music scene named Sara Gazarek, who while still in her mid-twenties has shattered all expectations with her debut CD Yours, and her current album Return To You. She has the kind of quality and versatile vocals that send a clear message, and she is hear to stay for probably decades to come. Gazarek points to her high school music education in Seattle as the place where her journey began, and where the seeds were first planted that have continued to inspire her musical creativity. For every high school music teacher or bandleader out there who is fighting for funding of school art and music programs, find hope and encouragement in the words of Gazarek.
"I think everyone has times when you look back at certain moments and you realize if that moment had not happened, your life would be different. For me, it was auditioning for a jazz ensemble at Roosevelt High School. The jazz instructor was so passionate about passing on this jazz education. We weren’t just these girls in matching sequin gowns singing "Somewhere Over The Rainbow." He had us transcribing jazz solos and taught us all about the history and the artists who wrote the songs. Knowing that, and knowing that the only reason I am where I am, is because of that background. It just makes me so grateful and so excited to pass the tradition along,as well," says Gazarek, as she acknowledges the influence of her former high school instructors, Scott Brown (Roosevelt High School), and Clarence Acox (Garfield High School).
Since her days at Southern California University’s Thornton School of Music, Gazarek has volunteered her time to give back to the community. She helped create the curriculum for an ongoing program known as JazzReach, and the following year began to teach the same material to inner city elementary school children. Today, despite a rigorous tour schedule and her stature as a critically acclaimed jazz vocalist, Gazarek acts as the sole ambassador for the non-profit organization Music For All. The jazz singer and her band conduct free clinics at schools in the towns and cities where they have gigs. She says, "Everybody in the band understands that we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that one educator, and this is our opportunity to give back."
No doubt, Gazarek’s former teachers, including USC’s award winning Tierney Sutton, John Clayton, Shelly Berg and Carmen Bradford are proud of the attitude with which Gazarek approaches her craft.
Talking about her studio efforts Gazarek says, "With our first record, Yours, we wanted to make a statement that we are serious jazz musicians who are going to be around for a while. We took a couple of risks, but we also wanted to make something that people would respect, and that they would (consider) us seriously. I think that we built a really solid foundation with that record."
Gazarek and her band comprised of pianist and fellow songwriter Josh Nelson, drummer Matt Slocum and Erik Kertes (bass), bring many musical influences to their music, which resulted in Yours, receiving top ten notice for several categories on a number of charts in America and abroad.
She notes, "I grew up listening to Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney and a lot of other musicians. Everybody else in the band, even though they have degrees in jazz studies, have many musical influences. It wouldn’t be musically genuine for us to deny that. With this record (Return To You), we took it upon ourselves to find songs that we love or to find songs in which we could incorporate the sounds that we love. While Yours featured the Joni Mitchell tune "Circle Game" for Return To You, we looked for another Joni Mitchell tune that we liked, and that one was "Carey."
The Leonard Cohen tune "Hallelujah" appears on the CD Return To You and unveils a sultry side of Gazarek’s vocals. There have been numerous covers of the Cohen tune and Gazarek and company wanted to provide a new twist to the song, so they went in search of a rumored, obscure verse penned by the songwriter.
"I started purchasing different versions of Leonard Cohen’s song at record stores and at I-Tunes. Every time I sang "Hallelujah" (previously), people would come up to me and say, ‘That is so amazing, what is that about? I don’t understand it.’ The thing that I like about the verse that we found is it really ends the story. I think it leaves the listener with a sense of satisfaction about the songwriter, instead of a sense of longing and wanting to know what it (the song) is about," says Gazarek.
The verse that Gazarek added to "Hallelujah" is the last stanza, which says, "I did my best, it wasn’t much / I couldn’t feel so I tried to touch, / I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool ya /"
Gazarek says of the last verse, "It makes it clear that this is about a relationship, and they tried, but just like religion, it cannot be forced. You cannot force faith (or love)."
The singer admits to, "Songs with really intense lyrics appeal to me. Songs like "And So It Goes," which really embody what you feel, songs that simply paraphrase what you are feeling when something happens to you. "And So It Goes," to me, embodies how it feels when you have really screwed up and open up to somebody. "And So It Goes" uses a lot of metaphors, but it still embodies how it feels when there is a change in a relationship. Songs that paraphrase how I feel when something happens to me, or songs that I have a connection with such as one that a camp counselor sang to me, or my mom sang to me when I was growing up, or I went to this person’s concert when I was five and I loved the song, (express how I feel)."
While acknowledging that the CD Return To You does indeed provide the listener with an opportunity to experience many facets of her vocal abilities, Gazarek says, "We tried to make a cohesive sound for that record, even if I manipulated my voice to make it sound a little bit different on each tune. If you come to our live shows, it is even more so. We do a lot of up tempo stuff and really hard hitting jazz, as well as some blues. What we really wanted to do with this record (Return To You) is make a set of songs that flowed together. For me, it is about bringing the lyric to life, and a big priority is making the arrangements reflect the message of the songs."
Gazarek and her band are motivated to move people emotionally. "We always want people to hear our music and to be affected by it. We want people to come to our show and walk away feeling that they have experienced something. That is one of my biggest goals," she says.
Gazarek gives a lot of the credit for Return To You’s deep emotional base to fellow songwriter Josh Nelson with whom she collaborated on "Let’s Try Again," and who solo-penned three other tunes "Just Let Me Be," "Makes Me Feel This Way," and "Without You."
Gazarek comments about Nelson, "When he writes songs, it is always from a really, really, deep place and about something that is going on in his life. What I like most about Josh is he is not just writing a hit or a tacky tune, he is actually writing something to express what he is feeling."
"We were on our second tour date to promote Yours and he (Nelson) got word that a good friend of his in LA had been in a car accident and was in a coma. He wrote "Without You" for him. The way that we came up with the title for the current CD is from the first three words of the song, "return to you," says Gazarek as she sings the lyric from "Without You."
Despite Sara Gazarek’s success as a jazz artist, she remains focused on getting better at her craft. Early in her career, some of that motivation came from the fear that she would be a flash in the pan or a one hit artist who would soon disappear from the airwaves. Those who have heard her music are quick to disagree, and for the most part, it appears that Gazarek has laid those fears to rest.
"Because I am so close to my band, I think the only thing that I need to know is we are at peace with each other. As long as I know we are at peace with each other and having a good time, I can go out and have a fabulous show. It is very rare that we cannot go out there, just let loose, have a good time and feel that the audience can walk away knowing that they had a good time too," she says.
You will have a good time as well, whether you attend one of Sara Gazarek’s concerts or grab a copy of Yours or her current CD Return To You. Years from now, you will want to be able to say to your friends that you remember listening to her songs at the beginning of her career and knowing even then that you were listening to history in the making.