The Brownswood Record label has a deserved reputation for reflecting the electic tastes of it's founder Gilles Peterson, issuing well regarded compilations and single artist discs. In this instance Brownswwod appears to have issued a developed version of a six track EP originally released by Zara McFarlane in 2010. Taking the vocal lead, and accompanied by accomplished musicians Nick Walsh, Andy Chapman, Binker Goldings, Camillia George and Zem Adu, the classically trained musician McFarlane offers up a ten track set that sits firmly (and quite proudly) within the Jazz tradition.
The opening track 'More Than Mine' (which features in two versions) opens with a repeated solo piano refrain, joined by a clear voice that manages to mirror and convey the bittersweet reflective nature of the lyrics: 'Her eyes seem darker than mine, Her lips are fuller than mine, Her hair much larger than mine, Hips more petit than mine'. This doubt is developed by the mournful dirge like musical accompaniement, that finally finds resolution in the closing lines. Piano opens 'Captured (Part 3)', a lovely swaying song that allows McFarlane to exhibit the purity and warmth of her voice. 'Mama Done' is underpinned by a strong rhythmic drive, providing a simple yet highly effective arrangement over which her voice playfully works, whilst 'Until Tomorrow' is a darker, subdued affair. This is a song that could be re-worked in a number of ways to great effect (the Berlin based collective Jazzanova springs immediately to mind). 'Blossom Tree' allows McFarlane the space to hint at what her voice could do in a less formalised setting, and provides an early indication as to the strength and weaknesses of the album. There are two idiosyncratic covers of work by pianist Harry Whittaker ('Feed The Spirit (The Children & The Warlock)' and 'Thoughts'), the former taken in a thoroughly swinging manner, the latter allowing for a demonstration of her vocal technique. 'Chiaroscuro' and 'Desire' exhibit the essential qualities already demonstrated on earlier tracks, and the album concludes with an alternative version of 'More Than Mine'.
So. Do you buy?
Undoubtedly McFarlane possesses a voice able to dance and weave in a highly controlled manner, and the fact that she writes her own material is to be applauded, particularly in a 'wannabe popstar identikit' age. Given the material and form she has chosen to work in one doubts that her aspirations lie along such a path. Her commitment to Jazz is clear, reflected in the album and in her quote: 'I think anyone can listen to jazz but it's up to us to make it fresh so that anyone can relate to it.' Keeping and making music vital and alive is quite an undertaking, but this is a commendable effort. If there are doubts it relates to the fact that the general approach to presenting the music remains largely confined to a particular method, and there are some instances where the balance between her voice and the band is ill judged. It would be very interesting to see this obviously talented woman working across a wider musical palette, whilst still retaining (and demonstrating) her love of Jazz.
A British artist, and one that deserves your support for this good effort. Greater things will undoubtedly follow.