Gilles Peterson‘s Brownswood imprint is unearthing a rich vein of talent, and in the wake of its recognition for the nomination of Ghostpoet for the Mercury Music Prize, Zara McFarlane steps forward to assure us they are no one trick ponies.
Her style is predominantly that of the jazz chanteuse, her voice floated with beautiful control over a vivid canvas of instrumentation. There is an endearing vulnerability about her as she begins with a big list of questions on More Than Mine. “Her touch more gentle than mine, her kiss appears more tender than mine,” she asks, on a song that bookends the album, returning to put a spanner in the works when all appears settled. Yet there is a flipside that suggests McFarlane won’t be beaten quite that easily. “Her love’s not better than mine”, she concludes on the song’s second appearance, backed by a cheeky men’s chorus that suggest she has the beating of an adversary.
This resolve is what wins through with the rest of the album, McFarlane’s assertiveness ultimately triumphing over her doubts. The live instrumentation with her reflects that too. The alto saxophones of Binker Goldings, Camilla George and Zem Adu dance like butterflies on the opening track, while Peter Edwards evokes the bar room piano with beautiful sensitivity on the smoking Captured. The bowed double bass of Nick Walsh begins the softly hued Until Tomorrow with tender loving care – a perfect illustration of the sensitivity each of the musicians invest – which leaves only drummer Andy Chapman to complement, a man who switches between swing and slow jazz with ease.
Striking though the accompaniments are, however, they work in response to rather than instead of McFarlane’s rather special voice. In The Children & Warlock, a song by Roberta Flack collaborator Harry Whitaker, the listener leans instinctively closer to the speakers to catch her husky opening couplets, though the music gets progressively more energetic as the song progresses. When she invites the listener to “come and see my blossom tree” in the preceding song there is a form of enchantment being cast, as there is in the closing notes of Thoughts, where she declares that “I am lost in you”.
There is a strong human element to this record, the feeling that McFarlane’s tales are all borne from personal experience. She sings naturally throughout, never resorting to histrionics which, let’s face it, with a voice like hers could be easy. As is so often the case, less is more – and as a result, Brownswood have another likely success story on their hands. Fans of modern jazz music should acquire without further delay.