Band of the Day

2012.05.20

Zara McFarlane

Silky smooth vocals from the next generation of British jazz artists
You and me in stereo, sounds like desire.
lyrics from Desire

London-based jazz and soul singer Zara McFarlane has worked as a backing vocalist for artists such as Noah and the Whale, Denys Baptiste, and Soweto Kinch, but is currently working as a solo artist. In the past few years she has focused on her solo work and released her debut full-length album Until Tomorrow in 2011 on Brownswood Recordings, which was an extension of her 2010 EP of the same name. Zara expanded her musical IQ by studying popular music performance at Thames Valley University and then going on to complete a Masters Degree in Jazz Studies at the Guildhall School of Music in 2009. Although the album is fairly recent, many of the songs have been developed over the years by McFarlane, eagerly anticipating her move to center-stage.

London might not be the first destination that comes to mind when thinking about jazz music. After all, this is the city that's known for giving birth to punk greats like The Sex Pistols and The Clash. Walk through Camden Market on any given day of the week, and you'll still see kids with mohawks navigating their way through a labyrinth of tattoo parlors and stalls selling leather jackets and boots. While there's no denying that the spirit of British punk rock still lives on in places like Camden, if you meander down a different path you'll find a thriving jazz scene that includes newcomers like Zara McFarlane. After completing a Masters Degree in Jazz Studies from the Guildhall School of Music in 2009, McFarlane first made her way onstage as a backing vocalist for artists like Soweto Kinch and Noah and the Whale. The following year, she self-produced her debut EP, Until Tomorrow. It caught the attention of radio personality/record label owner Gilles Peterson, who signed McFarlane to his Brownswood Recordings label and helped her evolve the EP into a full-length album. The very first notes on opening track “More Than Mine” come courtesy of pianist Peter Edwards, whose stark melody is minimal enough to let McFarlane's vocals stand out as she describes the pain of seeing a past lover with a new woman. Dueling saxophone lines come in, each one taking on a different tempo and melody as if to articulate the sense of conflicting emotions creating inner turmoil. “Mama Done” is a more upbeat affair, with McFarlane playfully stretching her vocals up to a higher register and back down again, sometimes slipping into a be-bop feel by scatting instead of singing actual words. While the majority of the album's tracks are original, “Feed the Spirit (The Children and the Warlock)” is McFarlane's take on the obscure Harry Whitaker song. And both “Captured (Part 3)” and “Chiaroscuro” are stripped-down rearrangements of previous collaborations with dance producer Bopstar. The latter takes its name from an Italian term that means “light-dark,” and usually refers to tonal contrasts in paintings. Somehow McFarlane manages to capture the essence of the word; while her voice can be breathy and light, there's also a darkness that comes through in yearning saxophone solos and the deepness of the double bass. Throughout the album's ten tracks, McFarlane maintains traditional jazz standards while still creating her own unique sound. This is the next generation of British jazz, but it's lovely enough to resonate beyond the city limits of the Big Smoke.