Tag Archives: Hugh Stuckey

HEY, HEY IT’S YOUNG TALENT TIME

Ausjazz blog reviews the opening of Stonnington Jazz 2012

Sarah McKenzie

Alex Boneham and an attentive Sarah McKenzie at Stonnington Jazz opening night.

It was a perfect setting for deja vu. It was the opening night of Stonnington Jazz, the venue was Malvern Town Hall, patrons were seated nightclub-style at tables across the dimly, but beautifully lit auditorium, and festival director Adrian Jackson was at the microphone. Sarah McKenzie was soon seated at the piano. It could easily have been a year earlier when the young singer opened Stonnington Jazz for 2011. But somehow the deja vu never arrived. This was different.

Generations in Jazz Big Band

Generations in Jazz Big Band

The big difference, of course, was a big band — the Generations in Jazz Big Band composed of talented young musicians nurtured by the esteemed saxophonist Graeme Lyall at Mount Gambier in South Australia. This band made a substantial difference not only because of their excellent musicianship, but because they altered the dynamic. Right from the start McKenzie was not just the performer on piano and vocals with her quartet of Hugh Stuckey on guitar, Alex Boneham on bass and Craig Simon on drums. She was now McKenzie the arranger and composer and musical director of a band, albeit in close collusion with Lyall. And from the start of this gig McKenzie was alert and attentive to what the band was doing — doing very well indeed.

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

With quartet and band, McKenzie performed The Wind Cries Mary (Hendrix) and At Last (Gordon/Warren), before giving us two numbers with the quartet and vibes — her take on Big Yellow Taxi (Mitchell) and Don’t Get Around Much Anymore (Ellington). But the highlight of the first set gave us a chance to see McKenzie sans piano and sans vocals in the role of composer and band leader.

Sarah McKenzie conducts the Generations in Jazz Big Band

Sarah McKenzie conducts the Generations in Jazz Big Band

Two things made this number special for me. First, Song for Maria was McKenzie’s tribute to American arranger, composer and big band leader Maria Schneider, of whom I’m a huge fan. This composition really worked well and really blew away any cobwebs of deja vu — we were seeing and hearing a new dimension to McKenzie as composer. Second, McKenzie handed the piano keys to Shea Martin (I hope that name is correct), who did credit to her work in a considered and compelling performance.

Shea Martin with the Generations in Jazz Big Band

Shea Martin with the Generations in Jazz Big Band

Graeme Lyall appeared to lead the band as the second set opened with Look For the Silver Lining (Kern/DeSylva).

Generations in Jazz Big Band

Generations in Jazz Big Band

It was obvious that Lyall has these young players well rehearsed and responsive. But, hey hey, some antics were about to begin.

Generations in Jazz Big Band

Generations in Jazz Big Band

There was no sign of an ostrich, but who should suddenly pop up but the inimitable showman Daryl Somers, who is a patron of the Generations in Jazz Program. He put the audience through its paces with some singalong.

Daryl Somers

No ostrich: Daryl Somers pops in to Stonnington Jazz.

McKenzie returned with the quartet for her version (“I can’t play a standard in a standard way”) of Nat King Cole’s Too Young, followed by Don’t Tempt Me, an original and the title track from her first album. The second album, Close Your Eyes, will be released soon. It should be said that the work of Stuckey, Boneham and Simon was exemplary, and Stuckey’s contribution on guitar in particular was appreciated by the crowd.

Sarah McKenzie

Hitting her straps: Sarah McKenzie

It was about now that it seemed McKenzie really started to hit her straps. I had the feeling she was just getting into her stride. Saying that she always tried to “do one dangerous thing every day”, she again handed the piano to young Martin and took the mic to perform only vocals in Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies.

Shea Martin on piano at Stonnington Jazz.

Shea Martin on piano at Stonnington Jazz.

I loved the work of the band, the pianist and Boneham’s bass in this piece, and again it was excellent to see McKenzie being a little dangerous.

One dangerous thing: Sarah McKenzie without piano.

One dangerous thing: Sarah McKenzie without piano.

But the singer returned to the piano for her most powerful number all night, an original blues titled Living Room Blues. I think McKenzie really felt relaxed at this point and could have gone on. She seemed to be just warming up. But the night ended with her alone at the piano for the ballad I Should Care.

It was a great festival launch, but more importantly it was a chance for McKenzie — with a huge dollop of help from Graeme Lyall and the big band — to show her potential as an arranger and composer. And there is much hope for the future of Australian jazz with young musicians being given such a great start.

At the opening of Stonnington Jazz 2012, the deja vu that might have happened was never missed.

ROGER MITCHELL

Advertisements

SARAH McKENZIE SEXTET

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

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

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.

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

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.

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

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.

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

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.

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

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.

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

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.

Julien Wilson

Julien Wilson

Eamon McNelis and Carlo Barbaro

Eamon McNelis and Carlo Barbaro

Hugh Stuckey

Hugh Stuckey

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.

Alex Boneham

Alex Boneham and (bottom left) Craig Simon

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.

Sarah McKenzie

Hugh Stuckey and Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

Eamon McNelis with improvised mute

Eamon McNelis with improvised mute

ROGER MITCHELL

STONNINGTON JAZZ 2010 — DAY 10

SARAH McKENZIE SEXTET at Chapel Off Chapel

 Sarah McKenzie Sextet
Sarah McKenzie

The first set was my last for this year’s Stonnington Jazz. A family commitment meant I had to leave before Paul Williamson and Friends, and could not make it to the Sunday gig with David Jones and Friends. I was not all that happy with my photographic efforts for this “last” gig. I was probably already switching out of festival mode and into family mode for my dad’s 90th birthday bash next day.

 Sarah McKenzie Sextet
Sarah McKenzie Sextet

The sextet line-up was Sarah McKenzie on piano and vocals, Pat Thiele on trumpet, Carlo Barbaro on tenor sax, Hugh Stuckey on guitar, Sam Anning on bass and Craig Simon on drums.

 Sarah McKenzie Sextet
Hugh Stuckey and Sam Anning

 Sarah McKenzie Sextet
Pat Thiele

 Sarah McKenzie Sextet
Hugh Stuckey and Carlo Barbaro

They played McKenzie originals Blues for Monty, Don’t tempt me and I got the blues tonight, as well as Cole Porter’s You’d be so nice to come home to, Sammy Fain’s That old feeling, and Duke Ellington’s Solitude.

 Sarah McKenzie Sextet
Sarah McKenzie

McKenzie graduated from WAAPA with a Bachelor of Jazz (Composition) and has won a string of awards — the Jack Bendat Scholarship, the Hawaiian Award for “Most Outstanding Jazz Graduate”, the Perth Jazz Societies Award for the “Most Outstanding Group of the Year for 2008” and the 2009 James Morrison Scholarship for vocals (after being a finalist in the scholarship for six years).

 Sarah McKenzie Sextet
Pat Thiele and Sarah McKenzie

As I’ve said previously, vocals are not my first preference when it comes to improvised music, but I regard each vocalist I hear as an opportunity to be educated. So what can I say about McKenzie’s performance? I think it is a big plus that her renditions of her original pieces had the same feel as the Cole Porter and Ellington classics, because the heritage of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday do seem important to this 22-year-old singer. Close your eyes and listen to McKenzie and it could be a much older woman singing, there is such power, depth and maturity in the voice. There is also warmth and conviction — when McKenzie sings “You’d be so nice to come home to”, she sings as if she has someone in mind. You know it’s not you, but you wish, in that moment, that it could be. That is a sign of how well the singer is projecting the feeling. And clearly McKenzie, as was evident when she sang In My Solitude, is not scared of emotion. She seems to be quite an open person, at least in her stage persona, and that is engaging.

 Sarah McKenzie Sextet
Sarah McKenzie

McKenzie’s style of piano is expressive but forceful and that goes well with the hard-driving energy of the sextet. This is robust jazz and it will appeal to audiences who like strong grooves and a swingin’ vibe. McKenzie has the appeal — often people make a point of saying that she has the talent to match her looks — to be an ambassador for jazz. But should that burden be placed on a young musician who simply loves to perform?

 Sarah McKenzie Sextet
New York Bound: Sam Anning

McKenzie announced after her first song that Sam Anning — who was not playing at quite all the Stonnington Jazz concerts — has won a full scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music in New York, NY. Congratulations to Sam. His departure will leave a huge gap in Melbourne and many bands will miss him. The Sarah McKenzie Sextet will be one of those.

 Sarah McKenzie Sextet
Sarah McKenzie