Vocalist Sarah McKenzie Spotlights Bay Area History


Sarah McKenzie’s new work, San Francisco–Paris Of The West, will have its world premiere at the Bay Area’s Lesher Center for the Arts on Sept. 14.

(Photo: Philippe Lévy-Stab)

Headlining a Monday night show at New York’s Blue Note, the blond-haired, blue-eyed singer-pianist took the stage with her all-male quartet. With no chit-chat, and just a nod and smile at the audience, she launched into “You And The Music,” a newly minted original. Four more of her own tunes—she writes both music and lyrics—would follow, before she played her first standard of the show, Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight.”

The set conveyed Sarah McKenzie’s priorities as an artist, reinforced during an interview a few days later at her Manhattan hotel: Although she sings and plays with swinging assurance, the thing that she’s counting on to distinguish herself is her songwriting.

The Blue Note was an important stop for the peripatetic 30-year-old, already a jazz star in Europe and her native Australia. A world traveler since her early twenties, McKenzie got her first degree in jazz studies in Perth; her second on a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston; and then spent two years playing and soaking up la belle vie in Paris, the inspiration for her new album, Paris In The Rain (Impulse!). In 2017, she moved to London, her new base of operations, from which she has toured Europe, North America and Brazil.

“Oscar Peterson is the reason I play music,” McKenzie said in her lilting Australian accent. Her four albums reflect a style that is tradition-minded, swinging and song-oriented. Besides Peterson, she cites George Shearing, Gene Harris and Shirley Horn among her influences. “I took blues lessons when I was 13. My piano teacher said, ‘You’ve got the feel for this. You should check out jazz.’ I was like, ‘What’s jazz?’ ... I bought a compilation CD and didn’t need to go past the first song, because it was Oscar’s ‘Night Train,’ with Ray Brown on bass.”

Often compared to Diana Krall, whom she greatly admires, McKenzie said she never really saw herself as similar, “primarily because of my songwriting and arranging.” Despite her reverence for the Great American Songbook, McKenzie has a taste for straightahead jazz and a fondness for arrangers and bandleaders like Maria Schneider and Terri Lyne Carrington, both of whom she considers role models.

The day after the Blue Note gig, McKenzie began recording her fifth album at New York’s Sear Sound. The program will be mostly originals. “I don’t know if it’s valid anymore to play another version of ‘Corcovado,’” she said. “What’s the point? There are so many people who do it better. Jobim wrote it, and he probably did it the best. Am I gonna do it better than that?”

She raved about her collaborators for the project: tenor saxophonist Troy Roberts, bassist Pierre Boussaguet, drummer Donald Edwards and up-and-coming guitarist Dan Wilson. “Dan plays down-home blues with so much soul, but he also knows the Brazilian repertoire,” she enthused. The album “swings, pays homage to the blues, but also has the Brazilian thing, too.”

The busy singer/songwriter recently finished a 90-minute song cycle titled San Francisco–Paris Of The West, a commission from the Diablo Regional Arts Association in Walnut Creek, California; she’ll premiere it in the Bay Area’s Lesher Center on Sept. 14. “San Francisco has been known as ‘The Paris of the West’ for years, but I wanted to find out why,” McKenzie said. In the Gold Rush era of the 1850s, the Verdiers, a family of French immigrants, opened a retail store called the City of Paris; it eventually became a center of French culture.

“I’ve written 13 songs, and we’ve assembled an all-star band to help me deliver them.” The group will include Jeff Clayton and Rickey Woodard on saxophones, John Clayton on bass, Jeff Hamilton on drums, Warren Wolf on vibes, Graham Dechter on guitar and Gilbert Castellanos on trumpet.

McKenzie makes no bones about writing in the style of the American and the Brazilian songbook masters who inspired her: “It’s new repertoire, new songs. A lot of the players say to me, ‘Who wrote this song? You did? It sounds like a standard.’ To me, that’s success.” DB

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