The first jazz piano Sarah McKenzie heard was the Oscar Peterson Trio’s ‘Night Train’ on a jazz compilation CD. McKenzie had been taking classical piano lessons and not wholly enjoying it; she remembers scales. Her father found her a blues and rock & roll piano teacher and it was the blues that really attracted her at first. Her teacher suggested she listen to some jazz as a natural extension and then she heard ‘Night Train’ She thinks she was probably around twelve years old.
‘It’s a time in life when you’re not really affected by what the world thinks you should do,’ says McKenzie. The music she heard from the Oscar Peterson Trio grabbed her; she had never heard anybody slapping the bass like Ray Brown does on that track. She had never heard piano playing like Peterson’s. ‘A lot of young pianists are drawn to him’, she says. ‘He’s really the ultimate piano player.’
As McKenzie began to listen to more jazz, it became her ‘special thing’; a way to express herself, a body of knowledge and music that she could call her own. As far as the singing goes, she doesn’t separate it from her playing. From her first composition at five years of age (‘Snail Trails’, a blues incidentally!) she’s been writing and singing songs. Writing music has always interested her. She acknowledges that she hasn’t had as much voice training as she’s had lessons on the piano but expects that the musicianship she’s learned so far will form a foundation for whatever other musical instruments she takes on. ‘There’s musical knowledge and there’s the technical knowledge of an instrument. Having the broader knowledge makes the rest more straightforward,’ she says. ‘That musical knowledge is why people like James Morrison are able to do what they do across so many instruments and styles.’
James Morrison’s Generations in jazz was a pivotal experience for McKenzie. It’s where she had her first sense of jazz as a possble way of life. She heard Phil Stack, Blaine Whittaker and Troy Robinson and remembers realising that she could possibly find a way to choose a career around the music she loved. She’s been working hard since to make that happen.
The Sarah McKenzie Sextet is opening the Stonnington Jazz Festival tonight at Malvern Town Hall. Her band includes drummer Craig Simon and bass player Alex Boneham (‘when they lock in together, they’re dynamite’, she says) Eamon McNelis (trumpet) Carlo Barbaro (saxophone), Hugh Stuckey (guitar) with special guests Julien Wilson (saxophone) and Phil Bernotto (percussion).
See the festival’s program here >>>>
She’ll also be appearing with her quartet (Sam Zerna on bass, Craig Simon on drums and David Rex on Saxophone) as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival on 12 June. See more here >>>>
Sarah’s new CD Don’t Tempt Me is out now on ABC Classics >>>>