july 2009

Sarah Jarosz: So young, so accomplished

Not Your Usual Roots Music Wunderkind

By Billy Altman

Sarah Jarosz
Sugar Hill

It seems a shame to feel sort of required to start this review of newcomer Sarah Jarosz by noting that her just-released debut album comes but a few weeks after her 18th birthday. I say that because, while her precociousness is certainly a significant part of what makes this truly maiden effort so impressive, I'd much prefer you simply heard her for yourself, and only then, after you've been (more than likely) bowled over by her undeniable talents, start to reflect on the fact that someone so young already sounds so accomplished.

Like its kindred-spirited cousin Celtic music, which over the last 25 years has replenished and fortified itself with a new generation of tradition-based, yet forward-looking musicians, bluegrass has been fortunate to have seen a parallel movement during roughly the same period of time, as gifted prodigies from Alison Krauss to Nickel Creek have emerged, as they say, to the manor born.

Jarosz, whose interest in bluegrass began when she took up the mandolin at age ten and quickly spread to learning guitar and banjo (all this in addition to the piano, which she'd been playing since age six), performs on all these instruments on Song Up In Her Head. And this rookie plays them so well that she not only holds her own amidst an all-star lineup of instrumentalists, but in the process clearly energizes the old veterans: there is a palpable sense of pride and support running through the solos and ensemble work of dobroist Jerry Douglas, fiddler Stuart Duncan, cellist Ben Sollee, to name a few of the many expert hands helping out here.

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Sarah Jarosz performs 'Come On Up To the House' from her debut album, with Alex Hargreaves (fiddle) and Samson Grisman

Were it simply a matter of noting Jarosz's playing skills, especially on clawhammer banjo (featured on tracks like "Fischer Store Road," "Left Home" and "Can't Hide"), that would probably be enough to recommend this collection. But there are also Jarosz's notable assets as a vocalist and composer. On the former front, there are hints of influences from well outside bluegrass; you hear traces of generational female singer/songwriter touchstones like Suzanne Vega and Sarah McLaughlin in her singing. And accordingly, while grounded in roots music, Jarosz writes with a contemporary eye and ear, with images and melody lines that belie her age and experience.

A good example is "I Can't Love You Now," about trying to deal with desires from the perspectives of a heart and mind at odds. "We can sing and dance all night/ But this heart still aches for flight/ The timing's just not right/And I can't love you now." Another is the disarming album closer, "Little Song," a duet with fellow bluegrass Prodigy U-grad, mandolinist Chris Thile. "My soul writes me/ My soul plays me/ My soul sings me/ So I'll sing this little song for you," sings Jarosz, summing up music's often unexplainable internal flow with profound simplicity and disarming purity. May there be many, many more songs up in Sarah Jarosz's head. As Tim O'Brien says in a preface inside the album's booklet: "It's just going to get better from here." Considering this terrific starting point, that really is something to look forward to.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024