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Zara McFarlane

If You Knew Her


by Ian Mann

January 22, 2014


Her singing combines technical expertise, purity of tone and an innate soulfulness in pretty much equal measure. 2014 is going to be a big year for Zara McFarlane.

Zara McFarlane

“If You Knew Her”

(Brownswood Recordings BWOOD0112CDP)

Released on January 20th 2014 “If You Knew Her” is London based vocalist Zara McFarlane’s second album for Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood recordings label. Her 2011 début “Until Tomorrow” created a compelling amount of critical claim and the buzz about McFarlane has continued to grow. The release of “If You Knew Her” has been keenly anticipated.

Born in Dagenham to a Jamaican family McFarlane has studied widely gaining qualifications in Music Theatre and Popular Music & Performance plus a Masters Degree in Jazz Studies from the prestigious Guildhall School of Music. She has collaborated with such jazz performers as Soweto Kinch, Denys Baptiste ,Orphy Robinson and Alex Wilson as well as fronting the Jazz Jamaica All Stars and the Nicola Conte Big Band. Support slots opening for Dianne Reeves, Hugh Masekela and Gregory Porter have helped to raise her profile and this new album will doubtless continue to enhance her reputation.

“If You Knew Her” builds on the success of “Until Tomorrow” with McFarlane delivering a similar mix of jazz, soul and reggae on a second collection of mainly original songs. Pianist and arranger Peter Edwards remains her musical right hand man and the album line up also includes two bassists (Gavin Barrass and Max Luthert) and three drummers (Andy Chapman, Moses Boyd and Luke Flowers) with Rachel Gladwin adding the distinctive sound of the harp. Guests include Manu Delago (hang), Binker Golding (tenor sax) and New York based Leron Thomas (trumpet and vocals). It’s a stellar cast that draws on the jazz scenes of London, Manchester and New York City.

McFarlane’s broad musical experience is reflected in her singing and songwriting. She cites jazz vocalists Cassandra Wilson and Dianne Reeves as significant influences but also points to the inspiration of more soul orientated performers such as Jill Scott and Erykah Badou. I saw McFarlane perform live at the 2013 Cheltenham Jazz Festival as a guest of the prodigiously talented young pianist Reuben James and his trio. It was a memorable performance that saw McFarlane singing a couple of the songs that appear on this CD, her contribution was good but overall it was James’ show. Nevertheless to an admirer of McFarlane’s work it was a beguiling glimpse at the extent of her abilities. 

And so to the new album itself which begins with “Open Heart”, an original song with a pared down arrangement featuring double bass, Delago’s hang, and McFarlane’s pure but soulful vocals. Despite the occasional vocal multi-tracking it’s richly atmospheric with an arrangement that is beautiful in its originality and simplicity.

The more conventional arrangement of “Her Eyes” is for a jazz trio, centred around Edwards’ piano. Lyrically the song is a paean to both the strength and tenderness of womanhood. McFarlane gives an assured vocal performance with Edwards taking the instrumental honours, soloing briefly above the patter of subtly brushed drums.

The lyrics of “Move” celebrate McFarlane’s sense of self empowerment in an arrangement that progresses from gently wistful to almost funky, particularly on Edwards’ solo. 

“You’ll Get Me Into Trouble” is a tale of romantic temptation beautifully sung by McFarlane to the accompaniment of her own very accomplished acoustic guitar. The title suggests something raunchy and funky, instead this exquisitely delivered song is the very antithesis of all that.

The song that has been most picked up on is McFarlane’s cover of the old Junior Murvin / Lee “Scratch” Perry reggae classic “Police & Thieves”, a song famously covered by The Clash. It’s a song that reflects and celebrates McFarlane’s Jamaican roots and she first began performing it in 2012 as a celebration of fifty years of Jamaican independence. It’s now acquired an extra poignancy and relevance following the death of Murvin in December 2013 but McFarlane’s version had been recorded long before then.
Musically speaking Luthert’s deeply resonant solo bass intro sets the tone for the piece. McFarlane’s arrangement slows the song down and radically re-harmonises it so that it becomes a soulful lament. Her semi spoken vocal is complemented by the flowing lyricism of Edwards’ piano and Golding’s jazz soaked tenor sax. It’s a thoroughly convincing re-working which brings jazz and soul to a Jamaican classic.

“Spinning Wheel” is a brief interlude for wordless vocals and piano and acts as a kind of palette cleanser between “Police & Thieves” and another album centrepiece, McFarlane’s arrangement of Nina Simon’s “Plain Gold Ring”. Alongside the jazz and soul influences previously alluded to Simone is another primary source of inspiration for McFarlane. Written for Simone by Earl S. Burroughs this tale of unrequited love begins with a choir of multiple McFarlanes but soon adopts a typically sparse, bass led arrangement which allows McFarlane to inject real feeling and emotion into her lead vocal.

The third cover on the album is “Angie La La”, another song sourced from Jamaica and originally a dub hit for Nora Dean. Re-invented in a modal jazz style McFarlane’s version features Manchester based musicians Barrass, Flowers and Gladwin plus the trumpet and deep baritone voice of Thomas. McFarlane contributes adventurous wordless vocalising and also duets with Thomas on one of the album’s more elaborately arranged pieces. Thomas’ instrumental soloing is also hugely impressive.

It’s back to the stripped back approach for the affecting, bitter sweet voice and piano duet “The Games We Played”. McFarlane gives a wonderful vocal performance in this exposed setting with Edwards providing typically thoughtful and sympathetic accompaniment.

“Woman In The Olive Groves” has been compared to “Afro Blue” and there’s something of John Coltrane in the way that Golding’s tenor sax probes and declaims within a modal jazz framework that also features Edwards’ Tyner-esque piano.

The concluding piece, “Love” was performed at the Cheltenham festival performance that I witnessed (the programme also included “Police & Thieves”). Here it’s another haunting voice and piano duet that ensures that the album ends on an elegiac note.

“If You Knew Her” represents a strong second album from Zara McFarlane and builds upon the success of “Until Tomorrow”. In the wake of the youtube success of “Police & Thieves” plus her high profile support slots one senses that this might be the breakthrough album for McFarlane.  Her blend of jazz and soul is capable of considerable cross genre appeal yet there’s no sense of McFarlane having compromised her artistic integrity. Indeed there’s a spirit of quiet adventurousness about the many stripped down arrangements, this is a performer who puts her voice on the line in some very exposed musical situations. But there’s no doubt that McFarlane has the vocal ability to rise to the challenge, her singing combines technical expertise, purity of tone and an innate soulfulness in pretty much equal measure. Her perceptive lyrics combine the usual relationship stuff with subtle social comment, the covers are well chosen and the arrangements, singing and playing uniformly excellent in a strong individual and team performance.

I’ll readily admit that the jazz/soul combination isn’t usually my bag but this album is a cut above the average and I can thoroughly appreciate McFarlane’s undoubted talents. This is music that also has the scope to appeal to listeners far beyond the usual jazz demographic and a degree of mainstream success may be forthcoming. I think 2014 is going to be a big year for Zara McFarlane.

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