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Sara Gazarek and Josh Nelson: Dream In The Blue

Dan Bilawsky By

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The success of a story often hinges on the art of the telling. Listen to vocalist Sara Gazarek with pianist Josh Nelson and you immediately see that to be true. These two use ripples of inflection to elicit tidal waves of emotion, uncover new wrinkles in the oldest of thematic fabrics, paint scenes and/or inhabit characters so deeply and convincingly that they blur or erase the lines separating true self from role, and willingly reveal all that this world has to offer—blessings, drama, and slings and arrows included. On Dream In The Blue, Gazarek and Nelson alternately elicit tears of joy and sorrow by moving from escape to reality, heaven to earth, and mirth to melancholy, reaffirming their collective position as one of the most arresting voice-and-piano pairings out there in the process.

While their musical relationship is at the heart of all four of Gazarek's previous albums, it's never been highlighted to this degree before. Through duo work these two have discovered an even deeper bond than those formed over their many years of collaboration; it's a bond built on the mutual acceptance of art as a reflection of life.

There's certainly more darkness and woe here than usual for Gazarek and Nelson, but there's no lack of light. The triptych that introduces the album makes that clear. First up is their signature marriage of "Blackbird" and "Bye Bye Blackbird," a beautiful medley filled with hopefulness and reflection. A perky performance of "O Pato" follows. Gazarek moves effortlessly from Portuguese to English, shades of "Take The 'A' Train" materialize in the harmonic framework of the song, and effervescence rules the day. Then optimism continues to shine through with a version of "On The Sunny Side Of The Street" that finds Gazarek matching moves with Nelson on some daring, wordless, well-choreographed maneuvers.

Everything is looking up at this point in the album, but then the realization that nobody rides life's highs forever is swiftly set upon the listener. With "All Again," a radio-worthy Nelson original, a balance point is achieved between darkness and hope; a poignant and nuanced performance of the Bonnie Raitt-associated "I Can't Make You Love Me" tears the heart apart; and a highly personalized rendition of "Mood Indigo," harmonically tweaked and rooted to sixteenth notes, brings out the dark blue meaning in the title better than most.

The second half of the album is no less intriguing in its emotional and musical blend. The seductive "No Moon At All" swings and sings just as it should, demonstrating a straightforward approach that still offers a few surprises. An amalgamation of musical lightness and subject heaviness appears with "Petit Papillon," a Gazarek-Nelson work that uses the plight of a captured and damaged butterfly as an analogue for a woman snared in love, wounded by its daggers, and left in the dust. Then there's "I Don't Love You Anymore," a collaboration between these two and songwriter Cliff Goldmacher that's built around an emotional wallop of a post-breakup encounter. It comes softly but hits hard. This is the point where heartbreak is piled upon heartbreak.

The album then moves toward its conclusion with Laura Mvula's hymn-like "Father Father," Nelson's "Behind Me" (with new lyrics from Gazarek), and a medley of Nick Drake's "Cello Song" and "Without A Song." That last entry, bridging two distinctly different forms of popular music from different eras, conceptually complements the album's opening number and brings things to an ideal conclusion.

Convincingly selling this wide variety of material in such an intimate setting is no easy feat, but Sara Gazarek and Josh Nelson are uncommonly gifted communicators who have no problem getting these stories across in just the right way(s). Dream In The Blue is a testament to the strength of their relationship. It's an album that's likely to endure in hearts and minds.

Track Listing: Blackbird/Bye Bye Blackbird; O Pato; Sunny Side Of The Street; All Again; I Can't Make You Love Me; Mood Indigo; No Moon At All; Petit Papillon; I Don't Love You Anymore; Father Father; Behind Me; Cello Song/Without A Song.

Personnel: Sara Gazarek: vocals; Josh Nelson: piano.

Title: Dream In The Blue | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Steel Bird Music


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