Stonnington Jazz opening night at Malvern Town Hall, Thursday, May 19, 2011
Sarah McKenzie piano and vocals, Eamon McNelis trumpet, Carlo Barbaro saxophone, Hugh Stuckey guitar, Alex Boneham bass, Craig Simon drums
Guests: Julien Wilson saxophone, Phil Bernotto percussion
She’s vivacious, she’s engaging, she’s spirited and she can woo an audience as if she’s been doing it for years, but Sarah McKenzie is only 22. She was an ideal choice by artistic director Adrian Jackson to open Stonnington Jazz 2011 with two concerts at Malvern Town Hall, and I’m willing to bet guests at tables and in the balcony seats loved this lively performance by McKenzie, her sextet and guests. It was also perfect timing for McKenzie, whose newly released album Don’t Tempt Me was selling steadily to queues of patrons during the break and after the concert.
McKenzie’s appeal is not hard to understand. As an advertisement for jazz, she is just what the doctor ordered. So what’s her appeal? Obviously she looks just a tad better than most jazz musicians who have been around the block a few times, so photographers are keen to snap images that could be used to boost the ratings of jazz. But this young artist’s attraction derives primarily, I believe, from the fact that she is — despite her youth — a born entertainer.
Her animated facial expressions and gestures, which are so ideal for the cameras, also appeal to the audience because they communicate McKenzie’s enthusiasm and sheer love for what she’s doing. It’s contagious. When she talks about how she discovered jazz or tells us that, at 16 when she wrote Love Me or Leave Me, she didn’t know it was a standard, we are caught up in her passion for the music. There is a frankness, an openness and honesty to McKenzie’s approach as a performer that is refreshing and appealing. But she also has a natural talent for working an audience that belies her years.
In this respect McKenzie is similar to her mentor, James Morrison, who has that ability to captivate an audience and impart his enthusiasm for whatever he’s playing and whoever he’s playing with. So, this opening night concert raises a broader issue: Is jazz or improvised music these days often less about entertainment and more about musicians pursuing their particular paths? Are audience numbers down because there is less of the “entertainment” aspect to performances? Well, to play devil’s advocate, I believe many hold the view that jazz would have more bums on seats with more artists like James Morrison, while that view would be anathema to musicians who believe in moving into exciting new territory regardless of audience appeal. It’s an interesting question.
So, now for a review of the concert. I loved the engagement with the audience and McKenzie’s infectious passion. She was clearly enjoying herself and that helped the audience to enjoy her performance. As well, she sang mostly standards or audience favourites, such as You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To, The Way You Look Tonight, Cry Me A River, I’ve Got the Blues Tonight, Summertime, Bye Bye Black Bird and, for an encore, (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66. For good measure, she added interpretations of Love Me Tender (which succeeded) and St James Infirmary (which was a too jaunty for this bleak song in my view). So she was not pushing any boundaries.
I wished a few things to be different. I would have liked to hear more original songs, such as McKenzie’s version of Love Me Or Leave Me. I would have liked her to try some much more adventurous material, some songs with the potential to go into more edgy territory.
And I would have loved to have heard members of the sextet, and the guests, being given more room to move and time to take some serious solos. McKenzie had a talented band — which she clearly recognised — but we heard solos from Eamon McNelis, Hugh Stuckey, Carlo Barbaro and Julien Wilson that were so brief as to be frustrating. They whet our appetites and then stopped after a tiny entree.
Finally, and this is a longer term wish for this young artist, I’d like to feel moved by her singing rather than enticed by her youthful exuberance. That is possibly unfair and a bit like asking her to suddenly become many years older and tap into the deeper feelings and angst that can come with life’s tough times. But it is also a fervent wish that Sarah McKenzie digs deep and stretches herself so that there are risks in her material and in the way she performs. In short, I would like to see McKenzie vying for a commission concert at Melbourne’s Jazz Fringe Festival in years to come.
For now, this young artist left plenty of happy punters filing out of Malvern Town Hall.