Sarah Jarosz’s first recording was nominated for a Grammy before she even finished high school. Last year, soon after she graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music, her third album also received a Grammy nomination.
But Jarosz is not interested in being in a class by herself. She seems to thrive on collaborating with other musical wunderkinder–and wunderelders, for that matter. She is solidly in the school of postmodern acoustic musicians that includes the likes of bassist Edgar Meyer, mandolinist Chris Thile, banjo player Bela Fleck, and many others, who are learning from and teaching one another how to erase the boundaries among classical, folk, roots, jazz, and other genres of music. There is no head of that class, no valedictorian in that group, but Jarosz is perhaps unique in the breadth of her musical abilities. She is a highly developed performer and composer on mandolin, banjo, and guitar; one of her instrumental pieces, “Mansinneedof,” also received a Grammy nomination. But she’s a compelling singer as well, and a songwriter of uncommon poetry and power.
Like impressionistic paintings that allow viewers to complete the pictures in their own imaginations, her lyrics often feature subtle and stunning images. On “Build Me Up From Bones” she sings, “The moon’s a fingernail / scratching on the back / of the night in which we lay beside.” And, like the richest art in any medium, her songs work on many levels. What appears to be a straightforward love song turns out to be possibly also a singer singing to her instrument or even to her music. Again from “Build Me Up From Bones”: “I held every inch of you / I wrote every line for you / I made time when time was all but gone / You’re the love I’ve always known.” Her voice, constantly changing in timbre, by turns breathy or belting, fuzzy or focused, is the ideal instrument to convey these songs, perfectly mirroring both the complexity and the directness of her melodies and words.
Jarosz has been touring and recording for most of her career with fiddler Alex Hargreaves and cellist Nathaniel Smith. Even younger than she is, they are the ideal complements to her vocal and instrumental prowess. In concert their virtuosity allows them to create a thicker, more intricate orchestral sound than seems possible for a trio.
On “Rearrange the Art,” Jarosz sings, “The masterpiece that lies within this room / has yet to leave these halls / and break through every door.” In her short career Jarosz has already compiled a body of work that artists twice her age would be proud of, but it’s probably true that her masterworks are still ahead of her. We have much to look forward to but a great deal to enjoy right now.
Sarah Jarosz and her trio return to the Ark on Friday, September 5.