Zara McFarlane – If You Knew Her
(Brownswood Recordings. BWOOD0112CD. CD Review by Mike Collins)
Zara McFarlane has had a busy year couple of years since her debut recording Until Tomorrow was released on Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label. You’d guess that appearing alongside Gregory Porter at Nina Simone tribute concerts in the Netherlands and sharing the stage with Diana Reeves at the 2013 London Jazz Festival might be among her highlights. If You Knew Her, the follow up album, is all the more remarkable given that context. There’s no reaching for easy wins or crowd-pleasing formulae. For much of this set, uncluttered melody, direct and personal lyrics and her rich, soulful and expressive voice are allowed to do their work with the accompaniment frequently stripped back to a minimum.
The first sounds on the album are of Manu Delago’s Hang drum, sounding a simple descending scale. It could be music from almost any culture until the first vocal phrase and harmonies of Open Heart anchor the simple melancholy phrases somewhere between soul and gospel. It’s an emotional start. Elsewhere, Jamaican music and reggae is an explicit reference point but completely re-worked. The ringing harmonies on the open lines of a Nina Simone’s re-imagined Plain Gold Ring sound for all the world like the prelude to a lovers rock anthem. Instead, minimal percussion clicks the backbeat out over the simplest of bass lines. Junior Murvin’s hit Police and Thieves is twisted by a change of metre, whilst McFarlane’s wistful but rhythmic statement of the lyric ‘fightin the nation’ harks back to the original before Max Luthert on bass and Moses Boyd on drums morph the groove into an African lilt under Peter Edwards‘ piano solo. On You’ll Get Me Into Trouble and The Games We Played McFarlane accompanies herself with, respectively, stroked guitar chords and melodic motifs on piano. Angie La La with an endless swinging vamp and a guest appearance on vocal and trumpet from Leron Thomas steers closer to a jazzy vibe . One of the stand out ensemble tracks Women of the Olive Groves, evolves from a minor blues like melody over a throbbing bass figure into an impassioned sax solo from Binker Golding against Edwards’ rolling McCoy Tyner like accompaniment.
Inspiration for her lyrics on this album come, McFarlane says, from the “..many amazing, charismatic black women in my life”. This is a bold, beautiful musical statement through which that inspiration is expressed, consistently powerful and at its strongest when presented most simply.