Zara McFarlane ‘If You Knew Her’ (Brownswood) 4/5

Zara-McFarlaneDagenham born singer Zara McFarlane impressed with her debut on the ever inventive Brownswood label under the masterly aegis of one Gilles Peterson, but her follow up is a marked step up in the direction of accomplished performance. In terms of style, McFarlane favours the classical terrain of Nina Simone combined with the social awareness of Gil Scott Heron and on this album that is a winning combination. Recorded both in London and Manchester (another intensely creative jazz hub at present), the music includes a few clever surprises, not least a wonderful reworking of Junior Murvin’s ode to roots reggae and adopted as a carnival anthem for Notting Hill, ‘Police and Thieves’. This version owes something to the socially conscious rendition of ‘Children of the ghetto’ by Courtney Pine and is, perhaps, deserving of a release as a single to attract a wider audience to McFarlane’s undoubted talents. Another favourite of this writer is the co-written (McFarlane and pianist Peter Edwards) delicate ballad ‘Her eyes’ which is an indication of the singer’s growing maturity as a singer-songwriter. Zara McFarlane is capable of wordless scat vocals and demonstrates her ability in this field on ‘Spinning Wheel’. A recent live performance at Xoyo in London and a series of gigs in Manchester have been well received with a nicely balanced repertoire. There are subtle shades of spiritual jazz on the Manchester-recorded number ‘Angie La La’ featuring Leron Thomas on vocals and the reposing harp of Rachel Gladwin and the double bass of Gavin Barras. Last year Laura Mvula came to the fore and went beyond musical boundaries to appeal to a wider audience. With the right kind of publicity, Zara McFarlane might just be capable of repeating the feat. The sparse accompaniment and attention to detail in the use of percussion mark her out as an artist of deep integrity who does not settle for the obvious pathways. There are even in places hints of Celtic connections which she might like to exploit further on subsequent albums and this will add yet another string to her already mightily long bow. Tim Stenhouse