Have you ever had one of those eerie, exhilarating experiences of feeling “unstuck” in time and space, like the characters in a Kurt Vonnegut novel (e.g., Slaughterhouse-Five, The Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle, etc.)? That’s what it was like attending my first concert at the Artistic Piano Gallery showroom on Biddle Rd. in Medford, a jazz performance by Duo Project (vocalist Sara Gazarek and pianist Josh Nelson) presented by the Siskiyou Music Project. From the outside, the facility looks like a little strip mall shop, but inside the structure is an expansive warehouse space with two-story high ceilings, unhidden ventilation ductwork, a small raised stage at the front, and for this occasion, filled with folding chairs to accommodate an audience of about 80 people (all packed, an SRO crowd), and lined with pianos of all types and sizes (acoustic, digital, grand in various sizes, uprights, etc.). But if I closed my eyes during the performance (as I did more than a few times), I would swear I was in a seat at the Hollywood Bowl, attending one of the finest jazz concerts of the Bowl’s season. That’s how good the Duo Project performance was – what in the world were they doing performing in a warehouse off the beaten track in Medford, Oregon? To be sure, this was a far more intimate space than the Hollywood Bowl, and the audience enjoyed some real intimacy with the jazz duo, who took turns speaking with the audience between numbers, about who they are, their history, the songs, the backgrounds of the songs and how the songs fit in their lives and repertoire, etc. So this audience enjoyed a significantly more personal, up close look at the artists than would have been possible at the Hollywood Bowl, more like an audience in a small smoky East Village jazz club. But when they were performing their music, one couldn’t avoid that uncanny “unstuck in time and place” feeling – this is SO GOOD, I must be at a Hollywood Bowl jazz performance, not in a warehouse in Medford.
The jazz duo, vocalist Sara Gazarek and pianist Josh Nelson, are a rare and sublime musical pairing. Gazarek, a Seattle native who moved to Los Angeles to attend the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California, and has been based in Southern California ever since, has been described, by Don Heckman of the LA Times, as “the next important jazz singer.” [The LA Times, 04-16-2008.] She has won awards (Downbeat Student Music Award for Best Collegiate Vocalist in 2003), released a chart topping first album (Yours, in 2005 earned a top 10 ranking in the Billboard Traditional Jazz Charts and was the top album download in iTunes for Jazz in Germany and France) and four well received subsequent discs (Live at the Jazz Bakery in 2006, Return to You in 2007, Where Time Stands Still – Triosence featuring Sara Gazarek in 2010, and Blossom & Bee in 2012).
Nelson, a jazz pianist and composer born and raised in California, produced his independent debut album, First Stories, at age 19, in 1998, and has released five subsequent albums (Anticipation in 2004, Let It Go on which Gazarek guested in 2007, I Hear a Rhapsody in 2009, Discoveries in 2011, and Friends…Forever with Ludvig Girdland in 2007). Nelson has been described by jazz critic Chuck Berg as a “brilliant young player whose virtuosity suggest the urbane yet bluesy tradition of Oscar Peterson and Gene Harris“. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josh_Nelson]
Nelson has been with Gazarek since her first release, Yours, in 2005, serving as music director, leading her band, and composing various of the pieces on that chart-topping recording, and in subsequent performances by Gazarek. It is a remarkable partnership that has both endured and improved over time. In the more than 10 years that they’ve been working together, recording, composing, arranging, and touring, they’ve “developed a musical trust and language”, which ultimately led them to strike out as a duo, minus Gazarek’s band, and devote a year composing, arranging and touring with this DUO project. They have spent time at Capitol Studios in Hollywood, California, under the guidance of legendary producer/engineer, Al Schmitt, recording a DUO album, soon to be released, which features some new original compositions, covers some of their favorite composers (from Duke Ellington and Harold Arlen to Nick Drake and Laura Mvula), and includes some re-imagined favorites from Sara Gazarek Band.
They managed to display their special vocalist/pianist relationship and present much of this new DUO material in two sets at the Artistic Piano Gallery concert. They opened the first set with a medley that paired Nick Drake’s “Cello Song” with the jazz standard “Without a Song”. Right from the start, it was apparent that these two artists were a special collaboration, polished, exemplary, successfully performing re-imagined material in ways never attempted before by anyone else, willing to take risks, each improvising and taking liberties with the music with absolute confidence that the other would be there at the right moment. Next was an original tune they wrote as a Duke Ellington tribute, Petit Papillon (Little Butterfly), which gave the audience their first glimpse at the DUO’s successful foray producing original and creative new jazz compositions. Then a piece composed by Nelson nine years ago, All Again: “working out relationship things in the music – ‘I’d do it all again.’” That was followed by the Jazz standard, No Moon At All – a much recorded piece, with notable versions by Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, Doris Day and others, but Gazarek’s voicing with Nelson’s sparkling piano including a fine instrumental solo made this a special and memorable number. That was followed by two Duke Ellington compositions, Mood Indigo and Single Petal On a Rose. Their Mood Indigo is a completely original arrangement that bears little resemblance musically to Ellington’s version. Where Ellington pounds the melody, with a steady quarter note beat, Nelson plays off-beat notes and unusual harmonies and Gazarek adapts her vocalizations to fit the accompaniment – it succeeds beautifully. Single Petal On a Rose featured new lyrics by Ms. Gazarek, and more superb piano solo rifts by Nelson; the piece proved to be one of the highlights of this extraordinary concert.
To give readers a small taste of what the audience at this superlative concert enjoyed, here is an audio recording of Project Duo performing their version of Single Petal On a Rose:
After that, the DUO performed their version of the 1991 Bonnie Raitt hit, I Can’t Make You Love Me, which Nelson confessed that he “played around the house endlessly when growing up.” They concluded the first set with “the first jazz song [Nelson] ever learned, as a junior in high school,” the Ella Fitzgerald/Count Basie piece, On The Sunny Side of the Street, though of course, this was their own different arrangement of the piece.
After a brief intermission, Mr. Nelson and Ms. Gazarek returned to the stage, and he announced, “This is where all the magic happens! We are warmed up and you’ve had a glass of wine!” He certainly would know. As terrific as the first set was, it really was just a preliminary warm-up for an even more enthralling sequence of pieces after the intermission. First up after intermission was the Portuguese Samba number, O Pato (The Duck), with Ms. Gazarek’s beautiful voice and her delicate parsing of the Portuguese lyrics, and Mr. Nelson’s agreeable and exemplary piano contribution picking up the vitality of the music and the attention of the audience right where they had left off before the intermission.
The second piece after intermission was a re-visiting of a number on Ms. Gazarek’s initial hit album, Yours: the Lennon-McCartney/Mort Dixon-Ray Henderson medley, Blackbird/Bye Bye Blackbird. But on the Yours album, the piece is fully orchestrated; the Project Duo version is pared down to the essentials, pairing Gazarek’s beautiful voicing with Nelson’s indispensable and pristine accompaniment. Gazarek and Nelson really began to dig in on the next number: the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer standard, Come Rain or Come Shine, riffing off of each other, alternating exquisite jazzy vocalizations with superb piano rifts, feeding off of one another’s energy, moment by moment. They followed that exhibition of jazz prowess with another original song recently composed by them, I Don’t Love You Anymore; a song that speaks to the all too common experience of when one has fallen in love and it has ended, unhappily. The song’s narrator has happened upon their recently alienated lover in the company of the latter’s new companion, and attempting to save face declares:
“I wish you both / the very best /…. / The world is flat / the sky is green, and I don’t love you any…
More of this, you’re more to me, more than I, I ever was to you
I know you’re gone, I know the truth, I know I’m lost, what can I do?”
Following that number, the DUO continued to pursue the love theme with several more pieces devoted to the topic, including Where is Love? and their own original arrangement of the Duke Ellington song, Love You Madly. They ended the set and the concert with their own arrangement of the Laura Mvula song, Father, Father.
“Don’t try to fight; don’t let me go
You’ve gone too far from what I know
I lost my heart in the dark with you
Father, father, why you let me go
Father, please don’t let me go
Let me love you”
At the conclusion, the audience provided an enthusiastic, sustained, standing ovation. Well deserved. For anyone who enjoys jazz, this concert was an absolute delight. Both of these artists have talent oozing out of every pore. They have been making music together nearly forever, and know one another musically as well as any musical partnership could aspire to – one can imagine that either of them could readily finish a sentence, a thought, a musical idea begun by the other. There are no rough edges here – this pair is polished and ready for big things, bigger things than a warehouse in Medford, Oregon. With my eyes closed, I could easily imagine this performance taking place at the Hollywood Bowl, and if I were a betting man, I would wager these performers will in fact one day make it to that renowned venue and probably pack them in there too.
But that’s jumping ahead in time and space. Right now, the DUO Project is a newly minted venture, even though Gazarek and Nelson have been performing together for over 10 years. The first DUO album isn’t out yet, and they are still in the process of making it happen. Which is good news for all the jazz fans out there. It’s possible to get in on the ground floor, to support the DUO Project and be part of the making of the DUO project album. Supporters receive perks like pre-ordering the recording, and access to behind the scenes exclusives. For more information, and to offer support, at a wide choice of levels, visit http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/sarajoshduo.
Siskiyou Music Project, which presented this concert, has four more jazz concerts on tap for this season, at a variety of different venues. Next up is Nashville father & son duo, Tim & Myles Thompson, at the Jazz in the Vineyard Series on Thursday, April 2, at Paschal Winery in Talent. For tickets, phone Siskiyou Music Project at 541-488-3869 or purchase online at http://bit.ly/1At9siS.
Featured image above: Duo Project (pianist Josh Nelson and vocalist Sara Gazarek) perform on stage at Artistic Piano Gallery showroom in Medford. Photo by Ed Dunsavage.