Zara McFarlane's If You Knew Her from 2014 promised much, being a wonderful, individual, mixture of jazz, reggae and soul that viewed the singer's Jamaican roots through the prism of her UK birth and London upbringing. It was an original blend that signaled the arrival of a major talent on the UK scene, setting a path that McFarlane has continued to purposefully stride down on this superb follow up.
Everything about this collection has been thought through -from the opening invocation of creativity "Pride" to the sleeve notes from Lloyd Bradley (author of the excellent and highly recommended history of Jamaican music When Reggae Was King). Even the aural link back to the previous record provided by Binker Golding's explosive solo at the end of "Pride," that echoes the impact of his solo work on the last album's "Police and Thieves" cover, has been carefully sequenced to draw the listener in. The cover shows McFarlane standing unsmiling and resolute in red beret stood in front of exotic foliage on what looks like a London suburban street, possibly about to go to the front line on our behalf to defend musical freedom. The picture appears to echo many of the themes of the record -Caribbean culture viewed from a London upbringing, the beret indicating either a struggle or maybe just that McFarlane has a fondness for the preferred head gear of the jazz hipster of days past.
Tracks like "Fussin' and Fightin'" are such perfect summations of the Jamaican styles of the late 1960s to early 1970s that you will be scurrying for the sleeve notes to try and place this obscure reggae classic that has somehow eluded you. McFarlane's vocal is superb, balancing the downbeat plea for steadfast strength in the face of the suffering that the world throws our way, against her own background vocal harmonies. The piano solo from Peter Edwards in the final section pushes the track into a nod towards dub which features some great percussion work from Moses Boyd.
There are two fine covers on this collection -the first "Peace Begins Within" is, like "Angie La-La" on the last album, a Nora Dean track here given an Acid Jazz/Talkin' Loud twist, while the second is a soulful reading of the Congos' rootsy "Fisherman." Both are given soulful readings keeping the 'sound of surprise' that comes from jazz and improvisation, but adding the emotional depth that comes from allowing the music you love to come out irrespective of genre. The original compositions on the rest of the collection are, however, at least as good. Take "Allies or Enemies" where McFarlane's intriguing lyric about the slow collapse of a relationship emerges over another example of her harmonising with herself, minimal percussion and acoustic guitar. "Freedom Chain" too has a great fluid bass line from Max Luthert, over which Peter Edwards adds Clavinet as the tune hits an impressionistic, dubby, final section. "Silhouette" features a spellbinding, stately and controlled, bass clarinet solo from Shabaka Hutchings that stretches for nearly 4 minutes of its 5 minute 24 second length before McFarlane joins in with only around 90 seconds to go. It's an exercise in atmosphere doing what the material needs, not complicating things with unnecessary layering.
The benchmark record for jazz/soul fusions has long been Jhelisa's Galactica Rush from 1994, but this is one of few subsequent albums in this genre that is capable of comparison with that classic in terms of the quality of the material and the strength of the playing and production. If there is a minor criticism it is that on some tracks there is a feeling that the musical ideas might have gone even further had a fade not been put on the music. Best example is on "Peace Begins Within" where, like many old soul classics, you suspect the studio tapes would have been incredible if allowed to continue for another 2 or 3 minutes. But these are just quibbles, Zara McFarlane has made another magnificent record that has surpassed even her breakthrough If You Knew Her and deserves to be the talk of the town -highly recommended.
Ode to Kumina; Pride; Fussin' and Fightin'; Peace Begins Within; Stoke the Fire;
Freedom Chain; Riddim Interlude; Allies or Enemies; In Between Worlds;
Silhouette; Fisherman; Ode to Cyril.
Zara McFarlane: lead & backing vocals, handclaps; Moses Boyd: drums, djembe,
handclaps; Max Luthert: bass, voice (track 12), handclaps; Binker Golding: tenor
saxophone; Nathaniel Cross: trombone; Peter Edwards: grand piano, organ,
rhodes, melodica, clavinet, voice (track 12), handclaps; Shirley Tetteh: electric
guitar, voice (track 12), handclaps; Shabaka Hutchings: bass clarinet (track 10);
Pete Eckford: percussion; Neil Charles: bass (track 11); David Wehinm: voice
(track 12), handclaps; Ruth Elder: violin & viola (track 11); Carola Krebs: cello