sat 02/03/2024

Zara McFarlane, The Old Market, Brighton | reviews, news & interviews

Zara McFarlane, The Old Market, Brighton

Zara McFarlane, The Old Market, Brighton

Singer's rise continues apace with a compelling Brighton Festival show

Humour and humility belie musical sophisticationMatthew Wright

Zara McFarlane’s exquisite synthesis of jazz and nu-soul, an intoxicating proposition on CD, breathes more freely live, we discovered, in last night’s Brighton Festival performance. A recent appearance on Later... with Jools Holland was mentioned discreetly, and has clearly buoyed her confidence, as she gave an utterly engrossing demonstration of why Holland, and before him, Brownswood Recordings’ Gilles Peterson are supporting her.

The Old Market, packed and ecstatic, was intimate without being cramped, and afterwards there were far more fans jostling to have a CD signed than queuing for beer. It’s not often that happens at a jazz gig. Whatever your metaphor of choice for the moment an artist breaks through to widespread notice, it’s surely happening to McFarlane now. One of McFarlane’s great achievements is that, while she understands both jazz and soul intimately, her writing and performance transcend the generic boundaries of both. McFarlane and her band - pianist Peter Edwards, drummer Moses Boyd and double bass player Max Luthert, with occasional support from saxophonist Binker Golding - played a full two sets, their programme approximately chronological, with the second set comprising songs mainly from this year’s second album, If You Knew Her.

Bassist Max LuthertWith the space and flexibility of live performance, the band had more time to elaborate on each composition, and there was much exuberant melodic improvisation throughout, and occasional jazz-style solos from every band member. (They didn’t feel as spontaneous as some jazz solos would be, but they suited the piece.) Peter Edwards had the most space to ornament the melody, which he did with melting sensitivity. On “Love”, for example, the pools of wistful dissonance he created balanced McFarlane’s angrier lyrics with a fine sense of the dramatic. Golding’s sax lines were generally a touch too smooth, though his outburst of Coltranesque outrage on “Police and Thieves” was sensational, and effective. Boyd and Luthert had fewer opportunities to break out of the rhythm and harmony sections, but took those they had with style. Luthert’s solo introduction to “Police and Thieves” was inspired, both as an arrangement, and as an example of solo playing, his anguished arpeggios building potently to the barely suppressed rage of McFarlane’s narration.

But the best performance of the evening, and the feature that made this band original as well as very entertaining, was McFarlane’s voice. Like a sunbeam through a magnifying glass, she takes a smooth, sunny sound, and focuses it until it scorches, the hurt and outrage in the lyrics (these are her predominant concerns, whether on a personal level, with songs like “Open Heart” and “Love”, or political, with “Woman in the Olive Groves” and “Police and Thieves”) distilled to a breathtaking potency. The speed with which she can change focus, from a whispered phrase of betrayal to a juddering howl of hurt, means that top-quality drama is never far off. 

This ability is at its most powerful in the pieces with relatively clean vocal lines and a spare arrangement, which give her purity and intensity of tone plenty of room to shine. The soul-derived vocal ornament in songs like “Her Eyes” and “Move” can sometimes crowd out the intensity, whereas “Open Heart,” “Plain Gold Ring”and “Police and Thieves” are the songs that really let the lava flow of feeling burn into the audience’s ears. The Old Market was the perfect size, just big enough to give her a dramatic stage, but small enough to feel the personal hurt. It’s well worth catching her while she’s still playing these intimate venues: the call from somewhere big won’t be far off.

Like a sunbeam through a magnifying glass, she takes a smooth and sunny sound, and focuses it until it scorches

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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