Sara Gazarek: Thirsty Ghost (MRI)

A review of the vocalist's self-produced album

Sara Gazarek, Thirsty Ghost
The cover of Thirsty Ghost by Sara Gazarek

The profusion of exceptional jazz singers who’ve come into their own since 2010 shouldn’t obscure the stellar vocalists who emerged in the 21st century’s first decade. For the most part their rise hasn’t been as dramatic as the Salvant-Swiftians, but creative growth in jazz is a long game, and Sara Gazarek is playing to win. A standout talent as a teenager in Seattle, she’s lived in Los Angeles since 2000, building a sterling reputation with her keen intelligence and bright, clear, fine-grained tone.

Impressive on every level, her self-produced album Thirsty Ghost distills everything appealing about Gazarek into an intense and heady brew. It’s a major work that’s less concerned about making a jazz statement than delving into treacherous emotional terrain. She co-arranged many of the tracks with Stu Mindeman, who plays piano and Rhodes on the majority of the songs (Josh Johnson, Larry Goldings, Alex Boneham, and Geoff Keezer also contribute arrangements). Each piece features bespoke instrumentation, and what’s consistently enthralling about the album is the way Gazarek sets the songs in conversation with each other, creating an evolving dialectic about loneliness and desire, self-deception, and hard-won self-knowledge.

The album opens with a bracing blast of alienation, moving from the keenly observed “Lonely Hours” to the abject rejection of “Never Will I Marry.” Gazarek lays bare the epic self-deception of Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe When I Fall in Love,” then offers a frightening invocation of Dolly Parton’s romantic foe “Jolene.” She closes with the extraordinary “Distant Storm,” which features her lyric for Brad Mehldau’s “When It Rains.” Joined by Kurt Elling, who also wrote the liner notes, Gazarek doesn’t offer satisfying synthesis as much as embracing succor, as if the thirsty ghost has finally been sated, at least for the moment.

Preview, buy or download Thirsty Ghost on Amazon!

Are you a musician or jazz enthusiast? Sign up for our weekly newsletter, full of reviews, profiles and more!

Andrew Gilbert

Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelancer who has written about arts and culture since 1989 for numerous publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, East Bay Express, Berkeleyside, and KQED’s California Report. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he experienced a series of mind-blowing epiphanies listening to jazz masters at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in the late 1980s, performances he remembers more vividly than the gigs he saw last month.