Sara Gazarek

Jazz singer Sara Gazarek performs with her trio on Thursday at Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge. (Courtesy of Sara Gazarek / February 15, 2012)

How often have we seen prodigies show brilliant early promise, only to crash and burn years later when confronted with real-world professional realities? The streets of Hollywood are paved with such casualties. Jazz singer Sara Gazarek is an early bloomer who has not only shown gratifying determination but also a capacity for artistic growth.

The 31-year-old San Diego native had a record deal and a tour scheduled before she graduated from USC's Thornton School of Music vocal jazz program in 2003. Impresario Barbara Brighton presented Gazarek at her Young Artists Jazz Series at Catalina's when the singer was in high school. "I thought Sara was a very unique and poised singer for her age," Brighton recalls. "A lot of young singers feel compelled to scat all the time but Sara didn't fall into that trap."

Gazarek, who performs with her trio at Descanso Gardens' free Music on the Main Series Thursday night, is a singer who stresses music values over histrionics and gimmickry. "The big thing about jazz," she says at her home in Los Angeles, "is that you're encouraged to be yourself. It's a challenge to find a way to breathe life into a song, using your own truths. Like that Irving Berlin tune, 'Cheek to Cheek' — I used to think it was just cute. But as I've gotten older, I see the universal truth in it, of being next to that person and wanting it to turn into something."

Female vocalists in jazz always make for a crowded field, but at the moment, the market is absolutely flooded. Still, Gazarek has made a place for herself, releasing four CDs, each more musically assured and well received than the last. A key to her success is in having cultivated long musical relationships; the most significant is her pianist, Josh Nelson.

He's one of the most valued young SoCal pianists — for his composing and arranging, accompaniment, and musical imagination. Nelson has been Natalie Cole's pianist for the last five years, and he shares Gazarek's rhythm section with bassist Hamilton Price and drummer Zach Harmon. "Sara and I have been working together since 2004," he says. "And we've always had a strong connection. We have a similar sense of the music, similar approach to dealing with tunes, and a similar work ethic. We also have a similar take on the process, and we like the same singers: Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Ella Fitzgerald, and Jane Monheit."

Mention of Betty Carter, a bebop singer who evolved into a vocal explorer who skirted the edges of free improvisation, elicits a point from Gazarek, who is an adjunct professor of Jazz Studies at USC. "I tell my students," she stresses, "that until you learn the chord changes and lyrics to a song, I'm not going to let you take off on it. If you listen to Betty Carter's early recordings, she had a very straight-ahead approach. She didn't take those big leaps until much later. You have to learn the basics."

Nelson sees Gazarek's vocal assets as manifold: "She has an incredible instrument," he says with a sigh. "Her sense of pitch and time and breath control are so consistent — I've never seen Sara struggle onstage unless she was losing her voice. And even then she powered through and gave a great show."

"One thing I try to tell my students," she says, "is that you don't have to have an operatic voice or the cleanest melisma to be heard. What's most important is the personal expression that you can bring to a song, so that your performance says something about you."

Sometimes nice girls finish first.

What: Sara Gazarek

Where: Descanso Gardens, 1418 Descanso Drive, La Cañada Flintridge

When: Thursday, June 19, 6 p.m.

Cost: Free with admission

More info: http://www.descansogardens.org

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KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.