Sarah McKenzie: “Never stop learning!”

SARAHSarah McKenzie is probably the brightest star to emerge from the Australian Jazz scene in the recent years. Her claim to fame was her appearance in the prestigious Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy; in the years that followed she managed to go to Boston, study in the famous Berklee School of music and get herself a deal with the historic Impulse label. Not bad for a woman under 30, who writes songs that are meant to become future jazz standards, plays the piano with the elegance and vigour of Oscar Peterson and sings with the sensitivity and playfulness of Nancy Wilson. Back in Australia for a brief visit, she presented her growing talents with a couple of gigs, before embarking on a European Tour to promote her album “We could be lovers”. While in Melbourne, she found some time to answer some questions. “We could be lovers” won the Australian Jazz Bell Award for Best Vocal Album. What was the first thing that came to mind when you heard the news? 
Sarah McKenzie: I was in Paris when I heard I won the Bell Award and the first thing I thought of was: “I wish I was in Melbourne!” The Bell Awards celebrate the very best in Jazz in Australia. I was humbled when I found out I was going to receive one. It was always my dream to make an album considered worthy of a Bell Award.

AJN: In what way do you feel you have evolved as an artist, during your studies in Berklee? 
SMcK: Jazz exists all around the world, but I think it is important to really acknowledge its roots first as American Music. Jazz came from the Blues, African music and Gospel music. It is a music based on the society of American culture and it cannot be fully understood until you live it. Perhaps, I was not aware of the depth and spiritual elements of the music before I left Australia. When I moved to America, I was made aware of these things and learnt that, as long as you keep learning, there is always a place for you in this music called Jazz. So, never stop learning!

AJN: At what point did you feel that you have found your own voice? 
SMcK: I think I have always been very concerned about ‘how to get my personality into the music’. I think I saw Monk, Bird and Bill Evans all more as personalities first before I worked out what they were doing musically. I just knew that I loved the ‘feeling’ they conjured when I listened to them. I used to listen to Bill Evans late at night, with just a little lamp on. It was so intimate and I felt myself imagining I was at the Vanguard in New York City. The ‘feeling’ he created musically was what was inspiring for me. By asking myself the question, how can I achieve the same feeling, I believe I started to express my voice through music. Living in America, however, is what drew my personality out completely. In the United States, they really celebrate the individual. It was an environment where I found myself unafraid to try things and really develop the music I was hearing in my head.

AJN: Your music oozes with a kind of heartwarming positive energy. How do you connect with your dark side?
SMcK: I am definitely an optimist, but I have this devilish side in me as well – don’t be fooled! This is usually expressed by playing pranks on my band members. Never fall asleep on a train. I will take a photo of you drooling and post it on Facebook! Muahahahaaa!

AJN: What inspires you the most?
SMcK: Love

AJN: What does jazz mean to you?
SMcK: Personality and individuality expressed through music.

AJN: Which of your songs best describes your current state of mind? 
SMcK: “We could be lovers”. There is a lot in this song if you take a close look at it. I think my current state of mind is somewhere in that last A section (the form of the song is AABA – sorry, I geeked out a little!). Anyway, it’s about hope.

Sarah McKenzie will be playing at the Foundry616 in Sydney, on Thursday 10 September