Catching Up with Sarah McKenzie on “Paris In The Rain”
Australian singer, pianist, and composer Sarah McKenzie has just released her new Impulse! album “Paris In The Rain”, produced by Brian Bacchus and Jay Newland and with a stellar cast of musicians: Reuben Rogers on bass, Gregory Hutchinson on drums, Dominick Farinacci on trumpet, Scott Robinson on alto sax, Ralph Moore on tenor sax, Jamie Baum on flute, Mark Whitfield on guitar, Romero Lubambo on guitar, and Warren Wolf on vibes. I met her earlier today in a hotel on Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse.
On the album, Sarah not only has five new originals, but she also recorded eight more or less popular tunes from the Great American Songbook, like “Little Girl Blue” by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, which really has a striking arrangement. “Well the arrangements are really important to me. I sort of see it as making someone else’s composition almost my own. If you take for example Etta James‘ “At Last”, I really can’t do it better than Etta James. She’s got that incredible voice and that’s her song. But if you can change the harmony, give the song your own feel and style, then suddenly the piece is now yours and your style and you have a valid version, just as valid. So I try and approach all songs like that. With “Little Girl Blue”, I thought that the song “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” would be a nice juxtaposition with the song. So I really tried to get than into the song. I wanted to give it a more gospelly kind of feel and also get some texture into it like we got the bass on arco and really created a mood.”
So what would she think is one of the more significant differences to the album which came before? “I think I’m trying to develop a style and I think I’ve gone further in this album. I think that’s really important. I love all of the greats because they had their own tunes and their own style and I knew that it was Oscar Peterson with one note and I knew it was Dizzy Gillespie because, you know, “A Night In Tunisia”, so I really tried to focus on what it is that I’m really about and that’s the swing, the style, the arrangements, trying to create something elegant from tradition, but making it fresh.”
But it is not all Gershwin, Jobim, or Johnny Mercer on “Paris In The Rain”. There are five new original compositions as well. “I’m really passionate about writing. I love the Great American Songbook writers. Talking about Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer and his lyrics. That’s always been very inspiring to me so I’ve always written tunes and I’ve always seeing it as important. It’s Jazz so you want to pay tribute to the greats and there has to be some Ellington on there, but I love to write tunes and I hope to have an album in the future with tunes that are just my own.”
So what is it about Paris that is so fascinating? “I’m from Australia. You have to understand that. This is a country that was discovered in 1770 by Captain Cook. 1770. So Europe has 12th century churches and for an Australian coming from my country which is all about nature, but not so much about history, to come to a place like Paris is truly something magical because of the buildings, the style, the history, even the food, tradition. So I really fell in love with the city. I think it’s incredibly beautiful, incredibly elegant, incredibly romantic, and I was really inspired to write a song about it.”
“The whole album has a bit of a travel theme to it. I was living like a gypsy last year. I didn’t have a visa for any country so I had to keep moving every two weeks from Paris to London to Portugal to America. It was a nightmare. But a great adventure at the same time. Anyway, “Tea For Two” is my tribute to the UK because what they drink over there is tea, “When In Rome” is for Italy”, “Triste” for Portugal. I think being a constantly travelling musician is a way of life. You have to build up a certain amount of road chops so this was a song that I thought had to be on there.” In fact, “Road Chops”, the final tune on the album, is the only instrumental here and really puts a new spin on Sarah’s artistry.
Some of the tracks on the album really reminded me of that typical George Shearing sound, with piano, guitar and vibes. “I’m a huge George Shearing fan. I love that sound of the block chords from the piano and then the vibraphone and the guitar playing either side of it.” Just listen to “When In Rome” or “I’m Old Fashioned” and you’ll get the drift.
One of her heroes is the late great Shirley Horn: “She’s magical. I have to keep reminding myself that all the albums that I love they were done a lot later in her life, when she was in her 60s. Her voice is so deep and so rich. Vocally, it’s her phrasing that I love like when she sings “I’m A Fool To Want You” it is really the emphasis on the “Fool” that makes you believe it so it’s not necessarily that you’re listening to a pretty voice, it’s more that you’re listening to an artist express something. And I really love that about her singing. Her voicings are amazing and she is so rhythmic. And to play the piano and sing requires a certain amount of coordination and all of her comping is right on the money and I love that.”
Sarah is playing Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola on February 13th and Ronnie Scott’s in London on the 20th and 21st and she will be on tour in Europe until May.