Jazz Album of the Week: Singer Sara Gazarek’s Revelatory Thirsty Ghost

Oct 14, 2019

October 14, 2019. Jazz vocalist Sara Gazarek had made five critically acclaimed albums, mostly straight-ahead, light and breezy repertoire that left everyone feeling good. Everyone except Gazarek. The vocalist and composer in her mid 30s was navigating some darker moments, and performing the old stuff didn’t feel authentic anymore.

A personal and artistic reckoning came, and Gazarek allowed the storm to do its worst. What emerged on the other side might just be Gazarek’s best—her sixth album, Thirsty Ghost.

Gazarek first heard the album’s opener, “The Lonely Hours,” on Sarah Vaughan’s 1964 album of the same name. This version doesn’t carry the noirish gravitas of Sassy’s but the arrangement by saxophonist Josh Johnson, in a slightly disorienting 5/4, captures what Gazarek intended to communicate, “that ‘pacing the floor at 3 AM’ feeling.’”

Next comes a take on “Never Will I Marry.” Wisely, Gazarek does not try to replicate Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley’s iconic take on the Frank Loesser composition. Gazarek’s version is less declaratory (maybe she will marry one day, after all) and much more contemporary, musically, with Stu Mindeman on the Fender Rhodes electric piano and Brian Walsh establishing the low end on bass clarinet.

On the next cut, Gazarek wades into pop territory with a take on Sam Smith’s infidelity-themed “I’m Not the Only One.” Mindeman is funky and soulful on the Rhodes, the background vocals are slick and shifty like liquid mercury, and Josh Johnson’s alto sax solo is a most welcome instrumental interlude.

That’s just three of the album’s dozen songs, and there are several more worth your time and finely tuned ears—the take on Nick Drake’s, “The River Man,” for instance, opens with a beautiful horn and woodwind prologue that will make you wonder why there aren’t more parts written for bass clarinet. And the take on Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” an arrangement by the great pianist Geoffrey Keezer, is about as hip an arrangement of a Dolly Parton tune as there’s ever been. Keezer characterizes it as “Trent Reznor meets Game of Thrones.” Drummer Christian Euman shines especially bright here.

But if you listen to nothing else, listen to the final track, Gazerek’s take on Brad Mehldau’s “When it Rains,” to which Gazarek has added lyrics, calling her version “Distant Storm.” The six-plus minute epic is the emotional core of the album and is bursting with legitimate crossover appeal and alto sax work from Josh Johnson that satisfies both head and heart.

Folks who dig Mehldau and the Radiohead-y side of his oeuvre will definitely appreciate “Distant Storm.” As we all know how well Radiohead and Mehldau execute exit music, it’s only appropriate that this one be Thirsty Ghost’s breathtaking closer.