Since 2002, vocalist Sara Gazarek and pianist Josh Nelson have nurtured an uncommonly strong musical bond. It’s no mere happenstance that Nelson has played on all of Gazarek’s four albums as a leader to date, and Gazarek has sung on two of Nelson’s. But over the past 18 months, this Los Angeles-based pair has taken their collaboration to a new level, touring extensively and developing an extraordinary repertoire as a duo. They recorded their new duo album Dream in the Blue (funded through pledgemusic.com) at the end of that process, letting the music ripen beautifully on the road. Along the way they won praise from esteemed critic Don Heckman for “the far-reaching, irresistible musical quality of their performance.” They are, according to Dan Bilawksy of All About Jazz, “one of the best modern day piano-voice matches in action.”
“I remember feeling so incredibly comfortable with Josh that I held on tight and never looked back,” says Gazarek, recalling their very first far-from-glamorous gig in LA. “We’ve spent the last decade and more writing together, arranging, recording, making silly videos, and essentially growing up together, personally and musically.” Nelson, in addition to citing his close rapport with Gazarek, sees Dream in the Blue as “also a nice snapshot of our musical tastes in general — decidedly welcoming and accessible for a wide variety of audiences. Sara’s tastes can be called ‘adventuresome’ or ‘fearless’ perhaps, but she’s very grounded and there’s a warm familiarity she puts out into the world that I’ve always really dug. This album has a nice balance of both.”
Dream in the Blue sees release at a time when Gazarek is emerging from tough personal challenges: her mother was in a near-fatal car accident in 2014, and she recently went through the dissolution of her 10-year marriage. “I realized the fragility of the gift of life,” she says, “and the importance of vulnerability and gratitude in our most precious relationships. Naturally the songs took on a searching heaviness that I hadn’t explored before.”
Reflecting on her early taste of success at age 23, Gazarek recalls a bit of enduring wisdom that 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 intimacy of Dream in the Blue, captured by veteran producer and engineer Al Schmitt (Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan), serves the emotional arc of Gazarek and Nelson’s program exceptionally well. The album opens with a medley, the Beatles’ “Blackbird” into the standard “Bye Bye Blackbird” (and then back again into “Blackbird”) — an arrangement that first appeared on Gazarek’s debut Yours (also recorded and mixed by Schmitt). “‘Blackbird’ is one of our signature arrangements,” says Gazarek, “and when Josh plays his piano hemiola at the top, fans automatically recognize it, so it only made sense to revisit and celebrate it, and highlight how it’s grown over the years – like us!” Another medley closes the album: Nick Drake’s “Cello Song” into the standard “Without a Song,” again positing a close link between the Great American Songbook and the contemporary pop songbook.
Also along these lines is the classic Bonnie Raitt vehicle “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 added space and breath to the phrasing, opening it up by extending bars, adding ritardandos and fermatas.” Laura Mvula’s “Father Father,” meanwhile, shows how the duo’s harmonic ingenuity can enhance the spirit of a song. The chord that Nelson plays on the lyric “lost my heart” is particularly wrenching and unresolved. “I love linking up interesting lyrics with interesting chords,” Nelson says. “I learned that from one of the masters, John Clayton!”
With the evergreen swinger “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” Gazarek harks back to the life-changing memory of discovering the song on the album Ella & Basie! (Quincy Jones, arranger). The challenging soli in the middle is by Nelson. Here and on “No Moon at All,” Nelson also hints at the legacy of stride piano: “I feel like a duo piano and voice record would not be complete without at least pointing at that rich tradition, even a little. 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. This one was one of the few tunes that came out of touring together.” “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, “finding the dark mixed with the light,” as Gazarek puts it. “All Again,” in a lilting, lyrical 3/4, features lyrics and music by Nelson; the pianist describes it as “a song about loss but also promise and hope.” “Petit Papillon,” or “little butterfly,” evokes faint traces of “Moonlight in Vermont” and finds Nelson easing into stride again. “It’s a love song that compares the capture of a butterfly who loses her colors/wings to a woman who falls for a man who leaves her once he watches her fall apart,” says Gazarek. “Oh, love!”
“I Don’t Love You Anymore,” co-written with lyricist and friend Cliff Goldmacher, tells the story of running into an ex sooner than expected, and finding them doing very well. “The lyrics encapsulate the lies that you would tell them, and yourself, to get through the interaction,” Gazarek says. Finally, “Behind Me” evolved out of a song Nelson wrote years ago, with a completely different lyric and story. “After my mom’s accident I stumbled upon the song in an email,” Gazarek recalls, “and I was completely taken with the first few lines, ‘I don’t know how I got here,’ ‘maybe I should go on home, and leave this all behind me,’ and how much it directly spoke to my mom’s experience in the ICU and rehab facility. I wrote a new lyric from her perspective in the hospital.”
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 and telepathic moments are many on Dream in the Blue, an album that exemplifies the art of the duo at its best.