Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Intimacy of Two

Listening to the various interactions of vocalist Sara Gazarek and pianist Josh Nelson on "Dream in the Blue" (Steel Bird Music) is akin to spending an evening with your best friends. Time goes by and you don't feel that happen because you're taking about all sort of "stuff"; whether it's love or the silly things that happen or the sadness when your heart is broken or the realization that, even though today you might be suffering, the sun will rise the next morning.

Thanks to legendary sound engineer Al Schmitt, every second of each song is clear.  One can revel in the fun of "Sunny Side of the Street" when both the vocalist and pianist break into a unison/duo solo. There's joy and playful interactions in the dancing reading of João Gilberto's "O Pato"  The tango tempo take on "Mood Indigo", one that moves from a sprightly rhythmic approach to a series of classical asides. Notice how the pianist's left hand sets the pace and the right interacts with the lyrics.  Their gentle rendition of Laura Mvula's "Father, Father" has echoes of a Randy Newman ballad, spare yet melodic accompaniment and a prayer-like melody.  It's such an emotional piece and both Ms. Gazarek and Mr. Nelson allow the song to breathe yet do not ignore the powerful message of estrangement that is an integral part of the lyrics . The duo give a similar treatment to "I Can't Make You Love Me", truly of one the saddest contemporary love songs.  There are numerous versions of this song, few more powerful than the original 1991 recording by songwriter Mike Reid and Bonnie Raitt's stunning reading from the same year.  It's an easy song to "overdo", to want to overseeing, to stretch out the words in a faux-gospel/blues interpretation. Not here. The emotion sounds real as does the heartbreak, not only in the voice but in the wonderful and gentle piano accompaniment.

The album opens and closes with 2-song medleys (although the digital version has one extra track).  The pairing of Paul McCartney's "Blackbird" with the oft-recorded "Bye Bye Blackbird" (from 1926) makes great senses both songs deal with freedom. The intimate reading of the latter allows the former to take wing. The duo combine Nick Drake's "Cello Song" with the standard "Without a Song" (from 1929) and the introspection of the former blends well with the joy of having a song in your mind and heart throughout one's day (and, for that fact, life).  Nelson's piano solo paints the portrait of that joy.

In the midst of the standards and popular songs are four originals. They fit seamlessly into the program, especially the delightful blues "Petit Papillon" and the introspective "Behind Me."There's a folky lilt to "All Again", a piece that flows easily from Nelson's splendid piano melody. "I Don't Love You Anymore" is a variation on the Mike Reid song, more of a survivor's song than a lament though one can help but hear the heartbreak.  Ms. Gazarek's vocal is stunning, emotionally riveting, with the piano serving as support and a musical representation of moving forward in the face of pain.

"Dream in the Blue" invites the listener in, makes him comfortable, makes him cry and smile and tap his feet and think about how the interactions of two talented people can open up so many possibilities. The lilt in and lift of the voice, the idea that a piano can be an orchestra or a solitary sound in a crowded lifetime, the lyrics that stir the heart, all that and more make this recording by Sara Gazarek and Josh Nelson so special.

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Here's the opening track:

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