Until Today: The Cosmic Jazz Of Zara McFarlane

Ben Grenrock takes a look at the new music from the Brownswood signed jazz musician Zara McFarlane.
By    August 7, 2017

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Ben Grenrock had a reggae cover band in college.

In the seven years since the release of her first record, Until Tomorrow, singer-songwriter Zara McFarlane has become one of the foremost figures in the blossoming UK jazz movement, stacking achievement after achievement with the same grace that her vocal chords sculpt air into notes. Her debut was nominated for the MOBO award for Best Jazz Act and with her sophomore effort, If You Knew Her, she won it—along with an Urban Music Award of the same title and Jazz FM’s honors for Vocalist Of The Year.

She’s played shows with Grammy-winner Gregory Porter. She’s appeared on BBC 2’s radio and television programs. She’s cultivated a voice that has the shimmering smoothness and comforting heft of a stream-polished stone. She’s shared the stage with the Royal Shakespeare Company as the featured singer in their performance of Anthony and Cleopatra. For Zara, a healthy dose of pride would be no deadly sin, but a well-deserved medal.

It’s fitting then, that on her third album, Arise, the first time we here McFarlane’s voice is on a song entitled “Pride.” And yet, as the lithe walking bass, ecstatic horns, and Zara’s calls to let her pride “shine,” to “be free,” fade away into the next track, it becomes clear that McFarlane’s accomplishments as a jazz vocalist are not the source of the pride she invokes at all. The subsequent “Fussin and Fightin” is definitively, surprisingly, a reggae song. This is a bold move from a musician who’s spent this decade conquering the jazz world’s K2 and with her third album seemed poised to summit its Everest.

But Arise proves itself more an exploration of McFarlane’s Jamaican heritage than an ascension to stratospheric jazz singer royalty. It confirms her as a versatile and comprehensive artist rather than the pidgeonholeable mistress of a niche, plumbing her roots and identity to allow her music to flow through the filter of not just herself but of the centuries of history that have shaped her.

Maybe a third of Arise’s songs could fit in the box of traditional jazz. “Pride” is one of them, but even in it an African rhythm dances below the surface driving it forward—a syncopated and ancient heartbeat, throbbing within a cultivated exterior that would comfortably command the Blue Note’s stage. Thus, “Pride” is the perfect sonic metaphor for McFarlane’s musical identity up until Arise.

Before discovering her passion for jazz while studying musical theater at the BRIT School of Performing Arts, Zara’s musical landscape had been filled more with reggae and hip-hop than the genre that’s earned her critical acclaim. Though on her previous albums she allowed these influences to peak through in her songwriting and has done jazz covers of reggae classics like Junior Murvin’s, “Police and Thieves,” it is only with Arise that she’s truly allowed her pride in her heritage “be free” in informing her music.

McFarlane’s rendition of “Police and Thieves” was nearly a complete re-imaging, sculpting and polishing the warm, rough gem of Murvin’s composition into something with nightclub sparkle and slowing it down to a somber meditation. In contrast, Arise’s cover of a reggae standard—Nora Dean’s “Peace Begins Within”—doesn’t just retain the island vibe of Dean’s; it uses jazz elements to accentuate it. These elements—Moses Boyd’s drumming, so silky and dynamic that it’s a perfect partner for McFarlane’s vocals; the legato, almost Big Band horns; and Zara’s trained voice itself—bolster the vintage joy in Dean’s original rather than seeking to tame it.

The aforementioned drummer, Moses Boyd—a rising star of the UK jazz world in his own right—also handles production duties. What he does behind the boards is, in a way, more noteworthy than his technical skill with kit, sticks, brushes, and djembe. Arise’s reggae tracks sound like they’ve been mixed closer to the way a jazz album would be, giving them a vivid clarity that no Steel Pulse or Marley song has ever possessed. This is reminiscent of one of the hallmarks of a different jazz resurgence happening across the pond: producer Daddy Kev’s hip-hop minded, post-production mastering of albums by Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, and other leaders of the U.S. jazz renaissance.

Kev’s novel approach to mastering jazz albums has made them pop for long time hip-hop heads, and it doesn’t seem far-fetched to imagine jazz die-hards finding a new appreciation for Caribbean sounds that emerge from their speakers as sleek and crisp as those produced by Boyd.

Arise is much more than a tribute to the Caribbean music Zara McFarlane was raised on or to the island from which both her and Boyd’s families migrated to England. It is a comprehensive soundscape of far-flung diaspora. Metropolitan jazz and beach-town reggae exist in harmony in a way they haven’t since evolving from their common African ancestors of kumina, nyabhingi, and the polyrhythms of tradition Ewe music. It’s a symbiotic reunion as culturally important as it is aurally mesmerizing. Scat-singing and intricate vocal harmonies are laid over a languid acoustic guitar that sways as gently as coconut palms on “Allies and Enemies.”

The fluid jazz arrangement of “Between Two Worlds” features riffs on keys and guitar which swirl through the high register in such a way that if the sun is shining particularly bright or the smell of the sea is in the air, they might be mistaken for the steel drums of calypso. The seamless union of these styles is impressive, but that the lyrics on both—“Allies and Enemies” and “Between Two Worlds” are simply love songs—make them all the more special. McFarlane has channeled the music of her heritages into a single vehicle for her personal story, one that takes place both on Jamaican sand and East London concrete. The result is a comprehensive portrait of an artist’s evolving present as well as her epigenetic past.

As the album closes, the lyrical focus shifts to the themes woven into its music. “Silloutte” tells of the painful search for an identity forcefully fractured across continents and time. McFarlane waits nearly four minutes before lending her voice to the quest, as if it’s through contemplating the music itself that she’s finally found traces of what she’s sought. A melancholy rendition of The Congos’ 1977 reggae tune, “Fisherman,” also explores diasporic fallout. Its lyrics are unchanged from the original, but the emotions they convey are vastly amplified: from floating on the tepid waters of poverty, to nearly drowning in desperation born of stacked odds. But closer “Ode to Cyril” swells with the same triumphant pride that opened the record. It swings through timeless rhythms on soulful, wordless vocals—gloriously universal for their lack of language. It brings the record home.

With Arise Zara McFarlane has reached into divergent cultures behind and before her, and pulled out beauty by intertwining the two. Though it’s pride in her heritage that she sings of, she’s now rendered that inextricable from a sense of pride in herself. More awards and accolades will surely follow as her career continues, but it’s hard to imagine an achievement she could be more proud of than that.

https://zara-mcfarlane.bandcamp.com/album/arise