Album Review: Sarah Jarosz, ‘Blue Heron Suite’

by Henry Carrigan (@henry.carrigan), Folk Alley

Sarah Jarosz Blue Heron Suite FreshGrass Commission

Soaring and majestic, Sarah Jarosz’s graceful Blue Heron Suite takes flight into an emotional stratosphere where the tailwinds of grace and beauty and hope swirl around the headwinds of anxiety and dread. The 11-song suite sonically conveys the longing to fly above the physical ailments that ravage our bodies, as well as the natural forces that over time erode the beauty of special places.

Jarosz composed Blue Heron Suite after she received the FreshGrass Foundation Compositon Commission, and she premiered it at the 2017 FreshGrass Festival at Mass MoCa in North Adams, Massachusetts. The arc of the album conveys the emotional intensity of Jarosz’s life in 2017 when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and Hurricane Harvey ravaged Port Aransas, Texas, the Texas Gulf Coast town where she and her family visited frequently. Inspired by early morning walks on the beach with her mother and the constant presence of magnificent blue herons—either standing at the water or taking flight—Jarosz’s buoyant and spacious songs capture the resplendent beauty of the heron and her mother’s and the Gulf Coast’s beauty and grace.

Gentle cascades of circling finger-picked guitar swirl around Jarosz’s tender vocals on “Mama’” the opening track on which she expresses her dread of losing her mother and her need for her presence: “Mama, where are you going?/You know I need you here/Mama, where are you going?/You know I need you here.” Crystalline guitar and octave mandolin weave in gentle eddies, swirling around each other as Jarosz’s vocals spiral upward on “Morning,” which echoes sonically Joni Mitchell’s “Morning Morgantown. Jeff Picker’s bass elides musical phrasing from “Morning,” introducing “Across the Canyon” before the song somersaults into Jarosz’s bright vocals that soar above Jefferson Hamer’s swooping harmony vocals and pirouetting guitar, bass, and octave mandolin runs. Four instrumental interludes offer respite along the journey, but they also introduce shifts in the musical landscape as the song cycle moves from dread to hope. Reprises of “Mama” and “Across the Canyon” ride along a buoyant optimism as the suite ascends to sonic heights in the closing song “Blue Heron,” a luxuriant tribute to the magnificent bird that watches over Jarosz’s mother—“Blue heron flying overhead/Keeping Watch over you”—and whose presence contains the promise of renewal and restoration: “We were walking the coastline/And you told me it wouldn’t be the last time/Then I took your strong hand into mine/And we walked together in the low tide.”

Sarah Jarosz brilliantly weaves thematic lines through the entire suite of songs, and her lyrics rise and soar from disappointment and dread to optimism and hope. Blue Heron Suite captures the feelings of transience that lurk around the edges of our lives and that come into the light in times when we face possible loss, but in these songs Jarosz demonstrates that we can be transported, momentarily at least, above our bodies and this earth on wings of hope and anticipation.




Blue Heron Suite is available HERE.

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