REVIEW: Zara McFarlane at Rich Mix (2017 EFG LJF)

"No mere reproduction of album tracks, but proper jazz"
Zara McFarlane at Rich Mix
Photo by Peter Jones


Zara McFarlane
(Rich Mix, 15 November 2017. EFG LJF. Review by Peter Jones)


It’s time we had a new National Anthem, something that more truly reflects this country’s fractious state of mind. I nominate Zara McFarlane’s Fussin’ and Fightin’. Apart from the relevance of the lyrics, it’s just such a great song, although we had to wait until nearly the end of this richly satisfying gig before she played it.

McFarlane’s compositions draw on the musical legacy of the Caribbean, as well as the jazz tradition. This evening was devoted to tunes culled from her recent Arise album. She had always promised to play the gig with a ten-piece band. And sure enough, it was a big, bold sound from some very fine players, most of them alarmingly young - in jazz years, at least.

Zara sings with seemingly effortless power and accuracy, and on the album her vocal harmonies are integral to these songs; so one major issue to resolve beforehand was how to approximate the recorded sound of her own multi-tracked voice. In the end she used two backing singers – Baby Sol and Keisher Downie - who, despite a couple of hesitant moments, threw themselves into the performance with such enthusiasm that their presence lifted the whole event. They were in fine exuberant form from the start, with Nora Dean’s Peace Begins Within and McFarlane’s Pride, and one of the many pleasing elements of the gig was the way the three voices blended, as if there were three Zaras.

Pride also featured a fine, mature tenor solo from young Kaidi Akinnibi. Standing next to him was trombonist Rosie Turton, who turned in terrific solos on Freedom Chain and Silhouette.

This was no mere reproduction of album tracks, but proper jazz: whilst McFarlane cued the band throughout with great authority and humour, she allowed them plenty of freedom to improvise. On Stoke the Fire, for example, Shirley Tetteh unleashed a fiery, passionate guitar solo that ignited the audience. And there were dynamics: on the Congos’ gorgeous Fisherman, one of two covers on the new album, the singers were backed only by Pete Eckford’s congas and Max Luthert’s arco double bass; similarly, on Allies and Enemies the singers had only Tetteh behind them. But for the rest of the night the groove was rock solid, thanks to Luthert and drummer Sam Jones.

It all ended with McFarlane’s unforgettable version of Police and Thieves, bolstered by a sweeping piano solo from Peter Edwards, and then Max Roach’s All Africa.

Earlier, audience cockles had been warmed by support act Thabo, who showed what could be done with nothing more than a fine soulful voice, a good pianist, a handful of nice songs, and a plus-size personality full of warmth and charisma.

LINKS: Interview with Zara McFarlane
CD Review of Arise

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