Zara McFarlane ‘Arise’ CD/LP/DIG (Brownswood Recordings) 3/5

The follow up to the excellent jazz-tinged debut, ‘Arise’. This is more of a pan-Caribbean affair and incorporates lovers rock-style harmonies, folkloric kumina rhythms, nyabinghi drumming and dub-soaked echo. Some of the finest of young British jazz talent is onboard here, with Moses Boyd on drums and the overall producer, Peter Edwards on piano, Binker Golding on tenor saxophone, and Shabaka Hutchings guesting on one track. If the ‘variety is the spice of life’ approach is the overarching raison d’être of this new album, it does succeed in producing one gem of a song in the cover of a Nora Dean song, ‘Peace Begins Within’, and this is a glorious piece with inventive use of horns that constantly soothes the mind, while Zara McFarlane is on the top of her game with a stunning performance. Nothing quite matches this, which is a pity, but, if released as a single, it stands a good chance of helping promoting the album as a whole to a wider public. Another cover, this time of the Congos’ 1977 opus, ‘Fisherman Row’, impresses with a gentler reggae beat than on the classic roots reggae original, some neat nyabinghi drumming to accompany and those subtle horns once again in evidence. Crossover potential is evident in the Caribbean drum pattern to, ‘Fussin’ and Fightin’, and McFarlane delivers some quality soulful vocals. In between songs, short instrumental vignettes such as, ‘Riddim’ Interlude’ and the keyboard-dominated dub of ‘Freedom Chain’, hint at an artist who is looking beyond purely commercial considerations to create something of artistic longevity. Another instrumental, ‘Silhouette’, features Shabaka Hutchings on bass clarinet and is, perhaps, the closest that this album gets to jazz.

Perhaps the one frustrating aspect of this new album for this writer is the overall jazz-lite content, though clearly that was never going to be the objective on an album that proudly showcases the Caribbean roots of the singer. Zara McFarlane should definitely pursue this fusion approach to music and it will surely pay off big-time. The balance is not quite there yet, but it is definitely heading in the right direction and there is still a good deal to commend. Looking forward to hearing Zara McFarlane in live performance at some stage.

Tim Stenhouse