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From Down Under to San Francisco with Sarah McKenzie

September 4, 2018

Never underestimate the power of a first impression. For Australian jazz pianist and vocalist Sarah McKenzie, what started as a workshop for underprivileged East Bay kids led to a major commission that heralds her return to the United States as a bright new star.

On Friday, Sept. 14, Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts presents the premiere of McKenzie’s 13-piece song cycle San Francisco — Paris of the West, a work commissioned by the Diablo Regional Arts Association (DRAA). Her all-star octet includes the three co-leaders of the acclaimed Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra — bassist John Clayton, saxophonist Jeff Clayton, and drummer Jeff Hamilton.

“It’s definitely my most ambitious work to date,” says McKenzie, 30, whose 2017 album Paris in the Rain (Impulse!) celebrates the city where she was based for much of 2015–2016. “I always write my own tunes, but on my albums I only include three or four originals. This is the first time I’ve written all the songs for a project, all the lyrics and arrangements.”

Given McKenzie’s lack of Bay Area ties, it might seem strange that DRAA picked her for a commission, the first time the organization has ever undertaken such a project. Back in 2014, she was the leader of an elite student group from Boston’s Berklee College of Music tapped to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival. As part of the group’s California trip, McKenzie led a workshop for DRAA’s Art Access School Time Program.

“I was overwhelmed with how authentic and humble and talented she was,” says Peggy White, DRAA’s longtime executive director. Looking to work with McKenzie again, White spearheaded an application to the Hewlett 50 Arts Commissions, an $8-million initiative by the Hewlett Foundation to partner with Bay Area arts organizations in the creation and presentation of 50 new works.

“We didn’t get the grant,” White says. “But we were so excited we decided to do it anyway and raised the money from private donors. The Hewlett Foundation opportunity spurred the idea, and it was so valuable because the application process makes you think everything through.”

Based in Paris at that point, McKenzie set out researching cultural ties between France and San Francisco, and ended up focusing on the story of brothers Felix and Emile Verdier, who founded the City of Paris Dry Goods Co. in Gold Rush-booming San Francisco in 1850. The department store’s Beaux-Arts building on Union Square defined San Francisco chic from the 1890s until it was replaced by Neiman Marcus in the mid-1970s (though the new building retained the original rotunda and glass dome).   

“It was all her idea to explore these connections between Paris and San Francisco,” White says. “We had her come out and she spent some about 10 days doing some research. We’re just cheering her on. She’s an amazing songwriter and storyteller.”

McKenzie’s story is actually a little more complicated than the appealing tale of a Cinderella discovered at a workshop for kids from underresourced schools. Even at Berklee, an institution known for attracting dauntingly talented young musicians, McKenzie stood out as an unusually talented and experienced student.

Before she moved to Boston she was already a rising star with two albums for Australia’s ABC Music. She earned the country’s equivalent of a best jazz album Grammy nomination with her debut, 2011’s Don’t Tempt Me, and took home an Aria award for the second, 2012’s Close Your Eyes. She enrolled at Berklee looking to expand her knowledge of American music via study and experiencing the culture first hand.

“I had an absolute ball,” she says. “That’s the first time I met people my own age from all around the world similarly obsessed with music, people from India, Japan, Spain, Brazil, and all over South America. I had inspiring peers and teachers.”

She studied voice with Maggie Scott, a Boston legend in her 90s, and arranging with Ayn Inserto, a brilliant composer and bandleader reared in the East Bay and mentored by Cal State Hayward’s Dave Eshelman. Delving into the work of singers who accompany themselves at the piano, she dissected recordings by Blossom Dearie and Nat “King” Cole, though her primary source of inspiration is Shirley Horn.

“I just love her feel on the piano,” McKenzie says. “She’s got a really strong rhythmic sense and doesn’t have to play flashy scales. The comping is in the right place and she really figured out how to negotiate her voice with the piano. Also no one plays ballads like her. Every time I hear her ‘Lazy Afternoon’ I get shivers up my spine. She’s my favorite.”

Signed to Impulse!, which was then based in France, she followed the label to Paris, figuring she could establish herself on the European jazz scene. She relocated to London in 2016, and now she’s settling in New York City while building relationships with top players around the country. For the Lesher Center premiere, she’s working with an all-star cast including Michigan-based guitarist Randy Napoleon, who tours with vocalists Freddy Cole and Rene Marie, L.A. saxophonist Rickey Woodard, San Diego trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos, and Baltimore vibraphonist Warren Wolf, a member of the SFJAZZ Collective newly hired at the Peabody Institute.

She’s particularly thrilled to be working with bassist, arranger, and composer John Clayton, who started his career in the mid-1970s touring and recording with the Monty Alexander Trio and the Count Basie Orchestra before relocating to the Netherlands for a five-year stint as principal bassist with the Amsterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.

A fan of Clayton’s recordings as a sideman and leader, she interned with him at Berklee and a few years later followed him to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, where he’s the artistic director of the Port Townsend Jazz Workshop. Among the masters he’s recruited for the summer program is legendary composer and arranger Johnny Mandel, and McKenzie cites his songwriting course as ideal preparation for tackling San Francisco — Paris of the West.  

“I was expecting him to come in and lay out all the rules, but he’d sit down at the piano and play ‘Shadow of Your Smile’ and say ‘This is what I did with the strings,’” McKenzie recalls. “‘How did you decide to do that music for the strings? ‘I just tried things.’ He went through a lot of his pieces, like his arrangement of ‘Emily’ with Tony Bennett. I thought there was a lot of rules, a correct way to do things. He showed me that it’s all about figuring out what works.”

A Los Angeles native based in the Berkeley area since 1996, Andrew Gilbert covers jazz, international music and dance for KQED's California Report, The Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Berkeleyside and other publications.