WAYNE, NJ - Allison McKenzie is busy these days.
The 27-year old Silk City resident is the vocalist for two musical groups, a voice instructor, and a teacher at a day care center.
“I really love living here in Paterson,” the rising R&B singer said. “I like the people here and the diversity that such a city brings to the table.”
In a concert that showcased the talent and arrangements of three-time Grammy nominated trombonist/composer-arranger/vocalist, Pete McGuinness, McKenzie was featured in two songs. Held at the Shea Center for the Performing Arts at William Paterson University, the concert was part of the school’s annual Summer Jazz Room.
Founded by long time WPU music professor, Stephen Marcone, the week-long series is celebrating its 25th year. The night’s performances also included many WPU alumni and faculty members, including the 19-piece neo-soul and jazz big band, Big Beat.
With Big Beat providing instrumental background, McKenzie, a graduate of WPU, opened the night’s fare by going solo with the 1977 smash hit, Sir Duke, by the legendary Stevie Wonder. McKenzie, in the piece arranged by the band’s drummer Joe Spinelli, stayed true to the unmistakable melody, yet ventured just far enough with her own attractive interpretations so as not to offend any musical purists. However, McKenzie said her next presentation, actually a duet with McGuinness, was one of the highlights of her career.
“It was a lot of fun singing with Mr. McGuinness,” McKenzie stated. “He is a great arranger and musician. He has a great way about him, to be able to make young musicians at ease. His compositions are very detailed and intricate.”
In his storied career, McGuinness has performed with the Woody Herman Orchestra, Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Heath, and the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, and many others.
To further underscore the talent on display for the evening, Dr. David Demsey, Professor of Music and Coordinator of Jazz Studies at WPU, passed the musical baton to his younger understudies. Highlighted with only a brief solo in the jazz standard by Jimmy Van Heusen, O You Crazy Moon, Demsey’s smooth saxophone sound left the audience thirsting for more. Demsey’s versatility fits The Lawrence Welk Orchestra, Charlie Parker, and everything in between.
Also contributing for the evening was trumpeter Chris Rogers, whose musical fare McGuinness said, “changed my life.” At 19, Rogers began a five-year stint with the Gerry Mulligan Concert Band. A New York City native, Rogers not only has extensive concert credentials but has performed in numerous hit Broadway shows. He has shared the stage with the likes of Buddy Rich, Frank Sinatra, James Taylor, Mongo Santamaria, and Earth Kitt.
For the tune entitled, Emily, arranged by McGuiness, the two Macs turned in the best back and forth vocal exchange since Mickey and Sylvia first performed Love is Strange, in 1956. Included in their rendition of Emily was ‘scatting.’ According to the Oxford Dictionary, scat singing is, “improvised jazz singing in which the voice is used in imitation of an instrument.”
The above definition was brilliantly displayed by both vocalists. Interestingly enough, one of McGuinness’s records/CDs is entitled, Voice Like a Horn. The mesmerizing vibrato of the WPU professor of jazz arranging and Manhattan School of Music alumnus did just that in mirroring mellow brass sounds throughout the entire evening.
The trio of Big Beat co-leaders, all WPU alumni, featured Charlie Dougherty on upright bass, Phil Engsberg on alto saxophone, and Caleb Rumley on trombone. Engsberg is also an award-winning author of children’s books.
McKenzie also fronts her own band, The Ally Mac Project, as well being the featured vocalist for Big Beat. In 2012, McKenzie was selected to perform in B.B. King’s R&B Spotlight Showcase in New York City. Her original song, “The World Is Ours” was selected as the theme tune for the Music Biz 101 & More Radio show on WPSC Brave New Radio 88.1.
Describing her inaugural album, First Love, as, “a raw and emotional expression of the beautiful, crazy, and sometimes dark side of romance,” McKenzie, who graduated first in her class in the new major at WPU, said attending the university helped “develop (her) musical skills tremendously.”
“Not only was I challenged academically, but being in a program full of aspiring songwriters and performers really makes you look at yourself and make your next song or project better. It was also a place of comfort. The songwriting community is incredibly tight knit and everyone is really encouraging and nurturing.”
Experience came early in life as McKenzie sang with her family in their own gospel group while growing up. McKenzie now not only sings her own songs, but composes the as well. She said she has had many musical influences.
“I like to listen to a variety of styles,” McKenzie said, “including R&B, country, rock, soul, pop, and techno. Right now I have been listening to a lot of Donny Hathaway and James Williams. I draw inspiration for the songs from the music I am listening to.”
McKenzie threw out names like Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, and Christina Aguilera as some of her musical influence that when it comes to the latter, she distinctly remembers hearing Aguilera singing ‘Reflection’ and “wanting to be like her.”
In advising youngsters aspiring to be vocal luminaries, McKenzie said there is no substitute for hard work.
“While I was in elementary school, I had a music teacher named Ms. Nabors that really affected my outlook on singing and performing,” Allison reminisced. “I sang in the school choir but never had the courage to go solo because I suffered from stage fright. Ms. Nabors worked with me. After that, performing became much easier.”
“Whenever I practice singing I usually start with some vocal warm-ups and then move into a song that I might be working on for a recording or a performance. For five years I took vocal lessons at a local music school called Music University. The lessons were usually a half hour. I would advise an aspiring musician to be consistent with practice, seek out teachers and wise musicians to help you develop your craft, and enjoy what life brings to you. You can find a lot of inspiration for your art by simply living and breathing in the world.”
McKenzie summarized, “My biggest musical thrill has been recording my original songs with my band. Hearing them come to life by being played by excellent musicians has been the most exciting thrill. I look forward to accomplishing the goal of making my own record.”
“Music is my calling, Music is my passion, Music is my destiny,” McKenzie concluded.
The final performance of the series is at the Shea Center today at 1:00 p.m. featuring the William Paterson student jazz ensembles.