Eclectic Guitarist Sarah LeMieux Draws From A Universe Of Sounds

The Sarah LeMieux Quintet performs on the New Haven Green on June 17 as part of Arts & Ideas.

Sarah LeMieux found inspiration for her recent music by walking up and down the halls of New Haven's Neighborhood Music School, where she teaches guitar and voice.

"I'd hear everything," LeMieux said, "and also all of the different repertoire that everyone else was teaching in their studios: Debussy, Rachmaninoff. There was a whole spectrum of flavors and sounds that I could be using."

LeMieux calls her music "chamber jazz," and it's easy to understand why. An agile guitarist and singer, LeMieux composes for instruments normally associated with classical music — clarinet, viola, flute, double bass and harp, in various combinations — with an advanced sense of harmony and counterpoint. Her ensemble plays with studied confidence and grace, and they're in no rush; songs lope along in round, swing-heavy grooves. Occasionally, as on "Pensnya Bez Slov," a track from her recent album "Moments Musicaux," she'll weave in wordless vocal parts, using her voice as one might insert an oboe or trumpet line.

LeMieux brings her Quintet — her brother Brendan LeMieux on percussion, violist Gretchen Frazier, clarinet player Julie Levene and bassist Alexandra Millen — to the New Haven Green on Wednesday, June 17 at noon, as part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas. Admission is free.

LeMieux, who grew up in Fairfield, started gigging immediately after graduating from NYU in 2001. She backed rocker Brother Love for a time, at venues like the Bitter End and the Cutting Room. "It was a lot of wild showmanship and picking up the mic stand and swinging it around his head and stuff," she said. "Not too similar to what I do right now."

Eventually LeMieux returned to Connecticut to raise her daughter. With time to think, she started writing lyrics for an area blues-rock band. "It's an accessible way to start writing lyrics because the structure is already there," she said. "I had time to sit with her and walk and let my brain marinate ideas and things."

LeMieux recorded "Superglue," her first collection of songs under her own name, in 2006. "That was fairly straightforward blues stuff with a little bit of jazz," she said. LeMieux also started teaching at Neighborhood Music School, where she "acquired that wonderful resource of everyone else who teaches there and who plays all of those instruments. I started thinking I might want to write something for oboe or bass clarinet or viola da gamba."

Armed with a wider palette of sounds, LeMieux wrote the bulk of "Moments Musicaux" in January of 2014. "I wrote it all simultaneously and fairly quickly, because I had a really solid idea of what I wanted it to be," she said. "I had a bunch of germs of ideas that were really clear, and the arrangements took a little longer." After a successful Kickstarter campaign, LeMieux headed to Hoboken Recorders in New Jersey to tracking with engineer Alan Camlet. Working only with her brother, LeMieux recorded the basic tracks; clarinet, bass and viola parts were added later.

Having instrumental colors to play around with, LeMieux said, is "addictive, but I also love to arrange for everything. I've been writing some choral pieces recently and some straight chamber things, for smallish and medium ensembles without vocals, just art-music stuff."

Whatever parts couldn't be crammed into the Hoboken sessions were tracked at a studio in Madison and forwarded to Camlet. Every song, at LeMieux's insistence, was mixed to analog tape.

Last year, at the Connecticut Music Awards, LeMieux took home the top prize for Best Jazz. And this year, she's nominated for Best Jazz, Song of the Year and Album of the Year.

With "Moments Musicaux" only recently completed, LeMieux said she's working on a country/bluegrass project with singer-songwriter Heather Fay. She also has the majority of another album ready to go.

"I have maybe 80 percent of another quintet-style record done," LeMieux said. "I still have to polish the arrangements."

SARAH LEMIEUX QUINTET performs on the New Haven Green on Wednesday, June 17, at noon. Admission is free. Visit for more information.

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