When jazz vocalist Sara Gazarek first arrived in Los Angeles from Seattle slightly more than a decade ago, she had a tight sense of swing and a demure set of pipes. She was a little unprepared for the expectations of a formal jazz education at USC.
"I remember being really embarrassed when I didn't know some basic theory elements," she says. While many student vocalists never feel it necessary to learn the musical language, Gazarek buckled down in order to earn the respect of her peers. Now only eight years out of college, she's leading the jazz choir at her alma mater and has compiled a diverse new album of lilting swing entitled Blossom & Bee.
We spoke with her recently at Little Tokyo's Far Bar, where she arrived fashionably radiant and equipped with a MacGyver-like ability to steady tables with sugar packets. "It was important for us not to rush into anything," she notes of her band, which features Josh Nelson on piano, bassist Hamilton Price and drummer Zach Harmon.
When Palmetto Records came calling last year, the group set off for rural Pennsylvania to record at Maggie's Farm, a converted 18th-century stone barn. The result was a dozen tracks, including Ben Folds' "The Luckiest," a few original tunes and a handful of standards associated with vocalist Blossom Dearie.
"I wouldn't say this is a tribute record," Gazarek says. "But a lot of tunes in our book came from Blossom." Dearie -- an inimitable interpreter of the American songbook -- had a squeaky, feminine chirp that differs from Gazarek's slender tone, but the two are connected by an abundant and natural playfulness. "I'm not a super-gymnastic vocalist," she goes on. "I really try to identify with the tune and the lyrics and find a way to bring my own story to it. There is a simplicity to Dearie but also an unwavering musicality that I get a lot of inspiration from."
The tunes are entirely dedicated to telling stories, and well-worn standards like "Tea for Two" and "I'm Old Fashioned" get a unique reworking, playing gently with the sense of time.
Meanwhile, as Gazarek gets comfortable at the front of her USC classroom, she's helping other youngsters make their way amid a cast of legendary jazz professors.
"You can't teach kids things that you aren't invested in," she says. "I'm teaching them songs I would want to learn, like Kurt Elling and Esperanza Spalding."
Sara Gazarek plays Vitello's tomorrow and Sunday nights.