13 octobre 2015

Sarah McKenzie : We Could Be Lovers

We Could Be Lovers, the charming Impulse! Records debut from Sarah McKenzie, introduces to the greater international jazz stage a remarkable 27-year-old pianist, singer, and composer, who succinctly declares her artistic goals as wanting to be a great contributor to jazz. “I want to be a messenger and try to push the boundaries,” she explains.

As evidence by the disc’s bracing collection of originals, great American jazz classics and a covers of a couple of rare jazz gems, McKenzie grounds her aspirations with a deep, sincere respect for the jazz tradition while seeking her own personal avenues of compositional expression as she cites such iconic figures as Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Gene Harris and Shirley Horn as some of her main lodestars.

With the help of veteran producer Brian Bacchus, McKenzie assembled an impressive lineup of musicians that include trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, guitarist Hugh Stuckey, bassist Alex Boneham, drummer Marco Valeri; and saxophonists Yosvany Terry and Troy Roberts. Before recording, McKenzie solidified a bracing rapport with the rhythm section through playing lots of live gigs. Because of the rich harmonic palettes of McKenzie’s arrangements, the horn players and vibraphonist were recruited to better realize her sonic vision.

We Could Be Lovers kicks off with the George and Ira Gershwin staple, “I Was Doing Alright,” which has been famously rendered by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong with Oscar Peterson, and Diana Krall. On the disc, McKenzie’s warm, burnished alto deftly renders the bittersweet lyrics and bouncy melody, while also demonstrating her splendid interaction with the rhythm section, particularly the way her piano comps alongside Stuckey’s golden guitar chords. The song also provides a nice vehicle for McKenzie to unravel a crisp, swinging improvisation.

Soon after, “That’s It, I Quit,” one of the three superb originals, appears on the disc. Initially powered by Boneham’s quicksilver bass line, McKenzie’s rhythmically intrepid melody takes on similar characteristics of Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine’s classic “The Trolley Song.” Nevertheless, McKenzie avoids wholesale mimicry by playing with the velocity of the song, which decelerates to bluesy sections before racing up to hurried tempos.

Thematically, “That’s It, I Quit” is semi-autobiographical ditty on which she sings of frustration while equating her relationship with music making with that of a lover. “I wrote this song to amuse myself and to give myself a bit of hope,” she says, before revealing that she composed it while studying at Berklee College of Music during a time when she was facing galling artistic hurdles in terms of piano playing. “I’ve always done well with music. But I’m not a child prodigy,” she clarifies. “So developing my craft has been hard. If I didn’t put in that extra effort, I would not have even made it to Berklee.”

McKenzie magnifies the amorous sensibilities with the disc’s titled-track –a gorgeous original ballad, which she argues is her finest composition yet because of its evocative, poetic lyrics. “It’s hard to be happy with your own compositions; there will always be something wrong with them, but I’m proud of this one because I worked really hard to make the lyrics not sound cliché,” she explains. “I’m a big fan of rhyme because it’s a structure for within you have to work. To able to create a rhyme that sounds seamless is actually very hard.” With allusions to changing seasons, romantic yearning, and unrequited love, McKenzie delivers the verses with a conversational, at times, pensive phrasing that is swept afloat by a transportive arrangement that opens in classic chromatic Ellingtonian style and gives way to a plush harmonies and a sensual tempo.

The light-hearted bossa nova, “Quoi, Quoi, Quoi,” is the final of McKenzie’s originals. With its snazzy rhythms and capricious lyrics that touch upon the initial, wondrous feeling of falling in the love, the composition allows her to explore her fondness for head rhymes and nonsensical words. In addition to Jensen’s exquisite trumpet solo, the song offers a fine opportunity to listen to McKenzie’s rhythmic vocal agility as she sings the jaunty melody alongside Stuckey’s lithe guitar accompaniment and Valeri’s sparse rimshots.

On the disc, McKenzie pays tribute to two formidable female jazz bandleaders that have also become her heroes – Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln. Earlier on the disc, McKenzie gives a winning makeover of Carter’s “Tight,” a classic composition that proves to be as tricky to sing, as it is to play as accompanying musicians. On McKenzie’s version, she quickens the rhythmic while retaining the original’s with sudden stops, but playing more on the off beats; the makeover also features Roberts and Stuckey injecting knotty union bebop figures, which eventually unfurls into Roberts’ robust tenor saxophone solo underneath McKenzie spry piano accompaniment.

Later on the disc, McKenzie covers Lincoln’s incantatory “The Music Is the Magic,” on which she serenades the haunting lyrics against a funky arrangement, gussied up by Stuckey’s rhythmic guitar comping, joyous handclaps, and Valeri’s shuffling drumming, which at once, hint at Brazilian samba and New Orleans’ second-line groove. “‘The Music is the Magic’ is my mantra,” claims McKenzie, explaining that she was attracted to the song because of its powerful title.

McKenzie rounds the rest of We Should Be Lovers with more material culled from the great American songbook. She bolsters Cole Porter’s sensual 1938 ballad, “At Long Last Love” with a noticeable blues sensibility, thanks in part to Boneham’s masterful bass intro, Stuckey’s swaggering guitar aside, and McKenzie’s own sparse yet swinging piano solo, which slyly betrays her debt to Oscar Peterson, who also famously covered the tune.

On Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s mid-’30s chestnut, “I Want Dance,” McKenzie reimagines it with an infectious, pneumatic groove that recalls Ahmad Jamal as a posh horn accompaniment envelopes McKenzie’s sparkling vocals, and shining solos from Jensen and Wolf.

Her brisk treatment of Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s 1950 gem, “Love You Madly,” allows McKenzie to once again show her command at singing tricky intervals and phrases at fast tempos; the tune also brims with some assured solos from Wolf, Boneham, and, of course, McKenzie.

The sultry reading of Jimmy Davis, Roger Ramirez and James Sherman’s 1941 tune, “Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be?)” – a standard hit for Billie Holiday – finds McKenzie delving deep into the blues vibe as the band swings hard while she coos the melancholy lyrics atop Stuckey’s sliding guitar chords, which give way to a burly tenor saxophone solo from Roberts.

We Can Be Lovers concludes with a sparkling rendition of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s classic, “Moon River,” on which she delivers the winsome lyrics next to Stuckey’s spidery guitar accompaniment in a style reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn’s performance of it in the 1961 movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

To reiterate McKenzie’s desire to contribute something meaningful to the world of jazz, she accomplishes it elegantly with this major-label debut, which will surely lead to bigger and brighter things.