Sarah McKenzie releases new album ‘Without You’, a creative set of Brazilian-inspired jazz.
Jazz pianist, composer and singer, Sarah McKenzie is releasing her sixth album, ‘Without You’. A Brazilian jazz project that conveys her love for Brazilian music and culture, ‘Without You’ includes a generous amount of Antonio Carlos Jobim songs along with four of McKenzie’s originals and a few other selections, all played tastefully, and in her own inventive way.
“I’ve always loved the music of Brazil, Tom Jobim, Elis Regina, and of course Astrud Gilberto,” says Sarah McKenzie. “What I especially love about Jobim is the simplicity and clarity of his melodies, songs that one can remember and sing.”
“I went to Rio de Janeiro in 2017 and played at the official opening of the Blue Note jazz club and also a famous Brazilian television show called ‘Encontro com Fátima Bernardes’. At night I jammed with local musicians, who were most generous and tremendously talented. I had a fantastic time being in Brazil. I always wanted to record Brazilian music but not a typical ‘jazz singer does a Brazil tribute’ album.”
At that concert, opening Rio’s Blue Note jazz club, Sarah performed with the brilliant Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo, who had previously played on her ‘Paris in the Rain’ album and has for years accompanied Astrud Gilberto on her tours. And she met the legendary Jacques Morelenbaum, the original cellist with Antonio Carlos Jobim. The genesis of ‘Without You’ began right there and then! Astonishingly those two Brazilian legends had never before performed nor recorded together.
In early 2020 at the very beginning of the pandemic Sarah contacted Jaques and Romero and remotely recorded her version of “Corcovado (Quiet Nights)” with the two masters in a trio format. “We released our performance as video on Facebook where it soon gathered 1.8 million plays and was shared more than seventeen thousand times, which is pretty amazing. We had a lot of requests to perform at jazz festivals and performed at Umbria Jazz Winter festival in Orvieto, in Germany and Portugal. Everything worked out so well that we decided to record a full album.”
With the addition of bassist Geoff Gascoyne (who worked regularly with Jamie Cullum and Michel Legrand), the famous and versatile drummer Peter Erskine (Weather Report), and percussionist Rogerio Boccato, who previously played on Sarah’s ‘Secrets of My Heart’ album, plus Bob Sheppard making guest appearances on flute and soprano sax, ‘Without You’ became the realization of Sarah McKenzie’s dream.
“The goal was to create something new while still paying homage to the tradition.”
The set begins with “Gentle Rain” which is taken at a perfect slow tempo that brings out the sensuality and cinematic nature of the song, allowing listeners to get lost in the music. “Corcovado” puts the focus on Sarah’s gorgeous clear voice during a haunting rendition with Morelenbaum’s cello featured as a prominent part of the ensemble.
Sarah’s first original, “The Voice of Rio,” is dedicated to Antonio Carlos Jobim and conjures up the image of Rio de Janeiro. Her “Mean What You Say” is a fast samba reminiscent of performances by the great Joao Gilberto.
Morelenbaum contributed three arrangements to the date: “Dindi,” “Bonita,” and a particularly beautiful rendition of “Fotografia.” On the latter, his cello harmonizes beautifully with Sarah’s voice during memorable sections.
The pianist’s wonderful original “Quoi, Quoi, Quoi” has a playful melody and some inventive and exciting playing on soprano by Sheppard. Jobim’s “Once I Loved” is played tenderly by the group and includes a pretty and wistful vocal that is full of longing.
McKenzie penned sensitive and meaningful lyrics to Romero Lubambo’s “Without You,” a ballad about lost love, the title song of the album. Sheppard’s flute and Rogerio’s percussion particularly add to the color and emotion of this performance.
About “Wave,” Sarah says, “One of my favorite versions is by Elis Regina and Toots Thielemans. My arrangement tries to capture the joy that Elis brings to the song. I featured Romero’s playing because he is a masterful guitarist who is always lyrical and interesting, everything he plays is always in the right place. His solo-playing on the outro of ‘Wave’ is pure joy for me.”
“Dindi” is a poignant and thoughtful rendition of Jobim’s classic tune and has another strong contribution by Sheppard on flute.
While she was initially hesitant about recording Jobim’s most famous composition, “The Girl From Ipanema,” Sarah decided to give it a new twist, starting with its bridge and adding some new transitions along with some shifting moods. “Everybody knows this song, even those who do not know jazz or Brazilian music. I knew that if I was going to record it, I was going to do it differently, make it into a suite with different sections. This arrangement is unlike every other version.”
“Chega De Saudade (No More Blues),” which Sarah sings in Portuguese with the bridge in English, is also given a fresh take with some infectious original and melodic soli lines. After a haunting interpretation of the love song “Bonita” (which includes an expressive cello solo), the set concludes with Sarah singing and playing by herself on an evocative interpretation of “Modinha”.
Sarah McKenzie grew up in Australia, taking classical piano lessons from the age of five. A teacher introduced her to rock, the blues, and boogie-woogie when she was nine. “By the age of 15 I heard Oscar Peterson’s Night Train record and that was the turning point for me. It was such happy music that I knew that I wanted to do that with my life.” She also loved Gene Harris and Ahmad Jamal early on as she developed into a very skilled jazz pianist and a highly appealing singer. For a five-year period she worked 5-7 nights a week playing in clubs, hotels and at weddings, building up her repertoire and her individual musical style.
Sarah was inspired as a pianist-singer by Shirley Horn, Nat King Cole, Harry Connick Jr. and Blossom Dearie. “They all tell stories through their singing and listeners believe it due to their sincerity. They have inspired me to be most concerned with telling the story of the song and reaching listeners. Music is about evoking emotions and is meant to touch people.”
McKenzie was formerly trained at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts and concluded with a Bachelor of Music. She won the Generations in Jazz Vocal scholarship, an Aria (Australian Grammy) and a Bell Award in Australia.
She first came to America in 2012 when she was awarded a full scholarship to Berklee School of Music in Boston, MA. She signed with the Impulse! label, went on tours worldwide, and realized one of her dreams by playing at the Montreux Jazz Festival. She spent periods living and working in Paris and London, and she recorded five well-received albums: Don’t Tempt Me, Close Your Eyes, We Could Be Lovers, Paris In The Rain, and Secrets Of My Heart.
The release of ‘Without You’ will certainly add to Sarah McKenzie’s popularity and reputation as a creative jazz pianist and singer. Rather than simply recording a typical Brazilian heritage album, she reinvigorates the timeless music with fresh ideas and subtle surprises, adding to its legacy. Now based in Los Angeles but still traveling the world, Sarah McKenzie looks towards the future with enthusiasm. “I’ve grown to love touring and having new adventures making music. My love of Oscar Peterson, Michel Legrand, and Antonio Carlos Jobim has consistently inspired me to create and write new music, to perform classic songs with meanings that are important to listeners and to play with great feeling. The music is my mission.”
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