Zara McFarlane, If You Knew Her

Johnny Sharp

By Johnny Sharp

on 01.28.14 in Reviews

Thanks to this East Londoner’s debut, which was nominated for a MOBO (Music of Black Origin) Award, Zara McFarlane has been hailed as an exciting new voice in British jazz. But it’s clear from its more diverse follow-up that the genre is a creative touchstone, rather than a raison d’etre.

Using jazz as a creative touchstone rather than a raison d’etre

The sparsely arranged “Open Heart” is a case in point. “An open heart is both a lock and key,” she smoulders over what sounds like a plucked harp, but is in fact a high-pitched steel drum. “Her Eyes” and “Move” have a smoky, organic feel similar to early Roberta Flack, albeit with jazzy decoration in the tinkling piano lines and brushed drums. “Angie La La” makes the template more club-friendly via an insistent piano motif. Throughout, there’s an inventiveness to her arrangements that transforms the songs from the smooth wallpaper they might have been in other hands.

The pick of three covers is a brooding interpretation of Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves,” which slows the track’s upbeat tempo and brings out a sense of despair that is missing in the original or the more famous version by the Clash. Here, as elsewhere, McFarlane’s soulful voice is center stage. She’s kittenish on the stripped-back “You’ll Get Me in Trouble,” in a paean to a bad boy that could have been written by Amy Winehouse. And there are more strident soul tones in “The Games We Play,” a lovelorn piano ballad that is the simplest song on here.

If You Knew Her is an album with charms that reveals themselves slowly — first with the immediacy of the less jazzy material, then with the slow burn of her more experimental compositions. McFarlane clearly doesn’t care to be part of any musical club that would have her as a member, and this album is all the better for it.