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"Sarah McKenzie is a musical marvel. She sings with the kind of phrasing that only a true jazz singer can come up with while her groove of the piano is the stuff that makes people want to play jazz. Don't miss a chance to hear this lady perform live!" James Morrison
She has performed regularly with her mentor James Morrison, sung backing vocals for Michael Buble, and now, on the eve of her headlining appearances at both the Stonnington and Melbourne International Jazz Festivals, Sarah McKenzie is releasing her first solo album.
Produced by Chong Lim, the album entitled Don’t Tempt Me marks a crucial milestone in the rapidly-developing career of the Bendigo-born, Melbourne-raised, Perth-educated McKenzie, whom critics around the country have identified as a once-in-a-generation talent.
At 23 years of age, the pianist, vocalist and composer is a graduate of the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts where Hugh Jackman, Marcus Graham and Lisa McCune among many other leading Australian musical and theatre performers also trained. While in Perth she completed a Bachelor of Jazz (Composition) degree, won the Jack Bendat Scholarship, the Hawaiian Award for ‘Most Outstanding Jazz Graduate’ and the Perth Jazz Societies Award for leading the ‘Most Outstanding Group of the Year for 2008’.
Now based back in Melbourne, her rise through the Australian jazz scene has been spectacular, aided by frequent appearances at venues like Bennett’s Lane, The Paris Cat, and at major jazz and blues festivals. Her musical pedigree is impeccable, having been mentored by legends like Graeme Lyall, Jamie Oehlers, and especially James Morrison, whose Scholarship she won after six consecutive years of involvement in Morrison’s Generations in Jazz talent development programme.
Her interest in music began at the age of five when her father gave her a piano. Her initial lessons though were in classical piano and unfortunately the appeal soon wore off. ‘Like a lot of kids that age, I lost interest and it’s quite amazing I’m still playing the piano because by the age of nine I hated it and told my parents I was giving it up,’ she says.
Seeing that she was talented but that her interest in music was wavering, her father sought out a new piano teacher and suddenly Sarah was confronted with an entirely different musical universe from the one she’d known.
At her next lesson, in walked a blues and rock’n’roll piano teacher!
‘I’ll never forget it,’ she says. ‘He had hair down his back and big chunky rings on his fingers, and when he sat down at the piano he played the blues! I couldn’t believe the sound and I thought I just had to play that too. He really inspired me, and if it hadn’t been for him I would have given it up. That was the key turning point of my musical life.’
After she’d learned to play the blues, the same teacher then suggested that she might like to try some jazz, but having come from an essentially non-musical family, her bewildered response was ‘What’s jazz?’.
Following her teacher’s lead, she bought a jazz compilation CD called Jazz on a Winter’s Night and there, on the first track, was Oscar Peterson’s classic recording ‘Night Train’. She was hooked from the first bars and spent the next week learning to play it just like Peterson himself, note for note.
She first came to Morrison’s attention as a 16-year-old and for six years competed in the finals for his Scholarship, jokingly referring to herself as ‘the biggest loser’ because it took so many near-misses before finally winning the most coveted award for young Australian jazz musicians. But along the way, Morrison was doing much more than simply offering the allure of a scholarship. She performed alongside him at major concert venues including The Basement in Sydney, The Stonnington Jazz Festival and The Stones of the Yarra Valley.
‘I’m so thrilled that James could be on my first album,’ she says, ‘He has been such an incredible musical inspiration for me.’
On the recommendation of Wangaratta Jazz Festival Director Adrian Jackson, Sarah came to the attention of Australia’s leading jazz label ABC Jazz who not only signed her but enlisted as producer Chong Lim, whose stellar career credits include musical direction for John Farnham, music supervision on It Takes Two and Dancing With the Stars, and more recently as producer on Mark Vincent’s and David Campbell’s chart-topping albums.
‘I was a little wary at first because I’ve spent my entire life in control of my own musical ideas,’ Sarah says, ‘and there was Chong asking me to try this new thing or other ways of doing things.’
But trust soon developed, to the point where the two of them spent months together putting the finishing touches to the album. ‘I see now that everything Chong was doing was designed to make the album the best it could be, and I respect him so much.’
‘It’s been amazing to witness the collaboration between Sarah and Chong,’ says Martin Buzacott who, as Manager of ABC Jazz, has witnessed the partnership developing between producer and artist since the initial, inspired two days of recording. ‘In the studio they are almost like one organism, with each pre-empting the other’s observations. It’s been a labour of love for both of them and the outstanding musical results speak for themselves. Everyone who’s heard the final mixes has been gob-smacked.’ …/3
The album contains extraordinary takes on classic pop, blues and jazz tunes, from the barnstorming first single You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To, through a spell-binding Dindi and smouldering rendition of St James’ Infirmary Blues, and onto a breathtakingly-original bossanova take on Elvis’ Love Me Tender. A stand-out too are three originals by Sarah, including the Latin-style title track Don’t Tempt Me, which features James Morrison, and the blues heartbreaker Love Me or Leave Me, amazingly written when Sarah was just 16 years of age.
Scheduled for release on ABC Music on 13th of May, just in time for Sarah’s major festival appearances, Don’t Tempt Me will herald the arrival of a young star capable of propelling Australian blues, jazz and pop into a new, international dimension.