Sarah McKenzie Quartet and Silo String Quartet, Bennetts Lane Jazz Club, Friday 16 August 2013
Sarah McKenzie piano, vocals; Hugh Stuckey guitar; Hugh Harvey drums; Tamara Murphy bass
Aaron Barnden violin, Andrea Keeble violin, Ceridwen Davies viola, Caerwen Martin cello
There’s a story in every gig, and in this outing it came in the second set, when we learned that we would be treated to a song dedicated to Keith Jarrett. Not because he was such an inspiration, but because — surprise, surprise — Mr Jarrett made a complaint. More on this story later.
In May 2011, patrons at the opening night of Stonnington Jazz (see Ausjazz review) heard Sarah McKenzie as entertainer, engaging and captivating the audience with her evident love of performing music she loved.
A year later, McKenzie again opened the festival (see Ausjazz review), but this time as arranger, composer and musical director of a big band, Graeme Lyall’s impressive Generations in Jazz Big Band from Mount Gambier.
A lot of water had passed under the bridge since then. In 2012 McKenzie’s second album, Close Your Eyes, received the ARIA award for Best Jazz Album and after a visit to the Umbria Jazz Festival she was invited to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston, US. She made a flying visit back to Melbourne in June to be musical director in Everybody Wants to Rule the World, a concert of jazz covers, pop and rock masterpieces on the opening night of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival.
McKenzie came to Bennetts Lane with some significant firepower. Apart from her new quartet line-up with Hugh Harvey on drums and Tamara Murphy on bass, she had the considerable talent of the Silo String Quartet. McKenzie also brought arrangements for the string quartet by two of her Berklee colleagues, Saunder Choi (Philippines) and George Mathew Dylan Varner-Hartley (Canada).
McKenzie’s talent for and love of arranging was evident from the opening Bye Bye Blackbird, but first set highlights were her versions of Sting’s Fragile, the standard I Won’t Dance and, to close, Hendrix’s The Wind Cries Mary, which wowed the audience, showcased her skill on piano and demonstrated the appeal of her phrasing.
I’m far from an expert on vocals, but the full timbre, depth and power in McKenzie’s voice is often hinted at — albeit very gratifyingly — rather than given a real workout in the songs she chooses. Given edgier material I believe she could let loose and really challenge herself, with great results.
The Silo quartet added a smooth, rich feel to Little Girl Blue, I Remember You (arranged by Dylan Varner-Hartley) and In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning (arranged by Saunder Choi), which gave space to Mckenzie’s vocals over slow work in unison by the strings.
The night’s highlights came in the second set. There were many, but I felt the set went on a little too long, so that the sense of a slow build was lost. The final song, At Last, displayed the strength of McKenzie’s vocals, but it seemed a pity to close without the Silo String Quartet on stage.
The second last piece, Gershwin’s beautiful Embraceable You, was rendered superbly and showed excellent interaction between Stuckey’s guitar and the strings, yet perhaps could have been played earlier in the night.
That said, this set brought us great arrangements from Dylan Varner-Hartley (for You’ve Changed) and Tamara Murphy (for I’m Through With Love), the latter bringing a nice exchange between strings and voice. McKenzie’s treatment of Big Yellow Taxi was, as always, adept and carefully crafted.
Harvey’s drums fired up behind guitar in Come On Home to set the scene for McKenzie to show us how well she sings the blues, showing dynamic variation, power and the facility to bend notes. Nice work.
I felt it would have been good to have the Silo String Quartet let off the leash at times in this concert, but their skilful work in Little Fluffy Clouds and Falling Water, two of five pieces from their Cloud Suite, was a real highlight. How good is it to go to a jazz gig and enjoy a string quartet that can improvise so ably.
But the standout for me came at the start of the second set, when McKenzie treated us to three of her original compositions. In the first, Letter to Lover, she split the audience into three and had us sing harmonies, which was a lot of fun.
Then came I Loves You Porgy, written a few days earlier in a beach shack on the Great Ocean Road and dedicated to Keith Jarrett, “who gave us a noise complaint at the Umbria Jazz Festival”. Apparently the “noise” from McKenzie’s band was reaching into another venue, annoying Mr Jarrett.
It was followed by an instrumental piece, There Were Three Ships, written in the Kimberley, featuring first violin Aaron Barnden with McKenzie and a lovely interlude by piano, bass and drums.
These three originals clearly showed that McKenzie could come up with an album of original material.
There is a lot to Sarah McKenzie. Yes, she is a natural entertainer who loves to play with standards and can work with a big band or string quartet. But I think the three original songs in this outing proved that the vocalist and pianist can not only extend herself with edgier, more challenging works, but also has a bright future as a songwriter.
Picture gallery: Some additional images