jimbessman.com – Review of “Solid Ground”

Sara Wasserman’s Leap of Faith

She was, as she says, born into music.

The daughter of renowned bassist Rob Wasserman and music producer Clare Wasserman, Sara Wasserman grew up in the company of such musical luminaries as the Grateful Dead, Lou Reed and Bonnie Raitt. It was surely just a matter of time before she started her own estimable music career.

A long time, as it turns out.

Her debut album “Solid Ground,” which the boutique jazz label Pacific Coast Jazz releases June 16 on its new That Other Label non-jazz line, was seven years in the making.

“I’ve been singing forever,” says the 27 year-old songstress, who hails from Mill Valley in Marin County, Cal. but now lives in New York. “But I didn’t want to sing [professionally] for a long time. In fact, I fought against it—because I wanted to find my own thing.”

That thing, for a while, at least, was acting. Sara moved to New York 10 years ago and studied acting, dance and musical theater at the Neighborhood Playhouse—having taken acting classes at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco since she was a kid. But she discovered that “when you act, it’s not your life,” and eventually returned to singing on her own terms.

“I started taking voice lessons seriously 10 years ago,” she continues (she’d been taking them since age 10), “and decided around then that I really wanted to sing.” The genesis of “Solid Ground” occurred three years later.

“My original intention was to make a demo,” she notes. “I was thinking of shopping it for a record deal and then decided to do it on my own because of the creative freedom and not having [record company] people tell me what to do.”

“Solid Ground,” then, reflects nothing so much as “my own intuition,” she says, referring specifically to the track “Leap of Faith,” which she wrote at “a time in my life when I needed to hold on to my own vision and have faith that I was on the right path.” It is a path resulting from many influences, as manifested by the album’s guest list.

On “Leap of Faith,” for instance, she’s joined by ace turntablist DJ Logic and Soulive drummer Alan Evans—and her father Rob Wasserman. Other noteworthy guests include the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, Lou Reed, Aaron Neville, Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, Jane’s Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins and jazz bassist Christian McBride. Together they bring out the many aspects of Sara’s work, from the gospel of “Leap of Faith” to the bluesy “Little Bird” to the soul/r&b of “I Am a Song” to the poignant love ballad “Fly Away” and the pure pop of Hall & Oates’ classic “Sara Smile.”

The big influence, naturally, is her father. Because of him, Sara “pretty much grew up on a tour bus,” absorbing the many and diverse styles of the numerous groupings he was part of at one time or another. But besides his stellar musicianship, Rob is an accomplished songwriter: Five of his compositions grace “Solid Ground”–the titletrack (co-written with Traffic’s Jim Capaldi), “Hindsight” (she sang these two songs at her very first performance 10 years ago with Weir’s band RatDog—in which Rob played bass), “Little Bird,” and “I Am a Song” and “Fly Away,” these latter two co-written with Sara, the album’s producer Randy Emata and Aaron Neville.

The legendary Neville is the other key contributor to “Solid Ground,” musically and lyrically.

“He’s a great writer,” she says of Neville, whom she first met when she was eight (he was taping a segment of NBC’s “Night Music” and she joined him in swiping every single candy bar from the dressing rooms)–but she’s referring to his poetry. They met up again many years later at a pre-Katrina New Orleans JazzFest, where he gave her an unpublished book of poems and lyrics that he had written over the past 30 years.

“He thought I’d appreciate it as a writer—and I was inspired by his words and turned two of them into songs,” says Sara, whose own songwriting prowess is evidenced by the use of album track “Somehow Forever” on the TV sitcom “Girlfriends.” The next time she saw Neville was at JazzFest in 2004, when she and her dad went to his house and she played him a solo recording of “Fly Away.”

“It started as a solo ballad and he loved it,” she continues, recalling how Neville had listened intensely until the unforgettable moment when he started giggling when the wide-ranged soprano hit the sky-high notes on the bridge. He was so taken, it turns out, that he later asked Sara if she would write a similar song for him to sing with her.

“I was blown away!” she says. “But I didn’t want to write something that was the same as another song, so I called him when I got back home and asked if he’d do ‘Fly Away’ with me—since he already liked it.”

The duet is now a showpiece for a singer—and writer—who can hold her own with the great Neville both as vocalist and composer. But the whole of “Solid Ground” is a showcase, with every song having its own surprises (she even got Lou Reed, whom she’s known since her dad toured with him when she was a child, to play an acoustic guitar part when recording “Need to Know”—which is highly unusual in that he never plays acoustic guitar, let alone someone else’s guitar).

“Each song is very personal to me,” she notes. “I wrote almost everything except for the three songs my father wrote, and in seven years of collaborating with different artists, the album happened organically. It just took a while to find my vision and then follow it—but sometimes it takes time to find your own voice.”

And now that she’s found it, she’s satisfied her main objective in making “Solid Ground.”

“The most important thing about this project is that it has integrity,” she says. “It’s hard to explain, but to me, having longevity and people’s respect as an artist is the most important thing.”

She points to Bonnie Raitt, whom she first saw as a youngster when Raitt performed with her dad and Weir at a benefit, as a role model.

“I’m inspired by her music and how hard she works, and she’s one of the biggest influences on me as a vocalist and performer,” she acknowledges. “You hear her voice and know it’s her automatically, and she’ll be around forever–and that’s my goal.”

As she recorded two albums’ worth of material for her debut album (including “You Got Me,” a song that was played on an episode of the “Falcon Beach” TV series), Sara Wasserman is now full-speed ahead on a career that may have started tentatively, but is now firmly on solid ground.

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