Sarah McKenzie Debuts ‘San Francisco—Paris Of The West’


Pianist, vocalist, songwriter and arrangerSarah McKenzie premiered San Francisco—Paris Of The West on Sept. 14 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, California.

(Photo: Burkhard Hopper)

There weren’t any commemorative items for sale at the world premiere of Sarah McKenzie’s accomplished and wholly entertaining San Francisco—Paris Of The West song suite on Sept. 14. Had there been a merchandise table at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, California, “great cities”-themed shirts and tote bags listing “Boston, Paris, San Francisco & Walnut Creek” would have been perfect for the occasion.

A Melbourne native, London-based McKenzie studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston after earning a bachelor’s in jazz from the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts in Perth. While out west with her quintet in 2014 to represent Berklee at the Monterey Jazz Festival, the pianist, vocalist, songwriter and arranger conducted a workshop in the East Bay as part of the local Arts Access School Time Program. Her artistry caught the attention of the Diablo Regional Arts Association, which commissioned her then-in-progress 12-song work.

San Francisco—Paris Of The West traces the history of department store chain City of Paris in San Francisco’s Union Square neighborhood from its Gold Rush-era founding in 1850 to its closing in 1976. Highlighting different historical figures and locales, McKenzie utilized a variety of musical styles as she recounted the colorful nonfiction narrative through both song lyrics and the explanatory prose she read between numbers.

McKenzie began the 90-minute concert with guitarist Randy Napoleon, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton joining her on the bandstand. It was instrumentation that mirrored the late pianist George Shearing’s classic quintets and on the recent Friday evening was just as elegant. “Paris In The Rain,” which is also the title track of her fourth and most recent album on Impulse!, was the opening number. It featured a crisp, bluesy solo by its author and recounted the life that brothers Felix and Emile Verdier left as they sailed to San Francisco to found the store. Trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos, tenor saxophonist Rickey Woodard and alto saxophonist Keith Fiddmont then joined for the hip “Sitting On The Edge Of A Rainbow,” which boasted a crisp solo statement by Castellanos. “City By The Bay” borrows one of San Francisco’s nicknames, namechecks local institutions, and cable cars, and was the setting for a melancholy Woodward solo.

With her thoroughly researched interstitial explanations, McKenzie was able to enlighten locals and even natives about the retail institution that over the years counted Edith Piaf, Sen. Pierre Salinger and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown in its orbit. With its origins in the Napoleonic era and its closure around the American Bicentennial, the store also grew as San Francisco itself developed and survived the devastating 1906 earthquake.

McKenzie already has distinguished herself as a songwriter and arranger with a clear singing voice, and hearing a dozen of her originals in one sitting without any covers or standards was a reminder of why. “Build Us A Town Mr. Brown” would have fit nicely in Nat Cole or Ella Fitzgerald’s repertoire, and “Tchen Tchen Bar Blues” started with Asian tonal coloring, accented by Hamilton’s cymbal work before transforming into a head-bobbing stomper. Referencing Paris’ massive indoor Christmas tree, “You, Me And The Christmas Tree” sounded appropriately seasonal and even included what seemed like a brief, cleverly placed interpolation of “White Christmas.”

Over the years, comparisons have been made between McKenzie and Diana Krall, and a couple of similarities came to mind during the premiere, though not the obvious ones: For the night’s penultimate song, “End Of An Era,” McKenzie remained seated at the piano bench and sang to Napoleon’s accompaniment. It recalled times Krall and guitarist Russell Malone would do the same during her concerts. Krall also performed early on with Clayton and Hamilton as her rhythm section and has recorded with their Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra in which Fiddmont, Woodard and Castellanos all currently play. But McKenzie already has amassed an impressive songbook full of originals in contrast to Krall’s scant handful.

With its compelling story and instantly memorable songs, San Francisco—Paris Of The West would make for a great cabaret show or even musical. It will live on beyond its world premiere as the eight musicians head down to Capitol Studios in Hollywood to record it. The album’s set to be released after McKenzie’s next album, Secrets Of My Heart, is issued early next year. DB

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December 2022
Kenny Barron
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