In the current short term, fast buck, major label A&R climate Brownswood stand out like a beacon for the way that they back and develop their artists. Perhaps the different ethos comes from the top, Gilles Peterson is the label boss after all, but in any event less sensitive hands might not have allowed a talent as great as Zara McFarlane to develop after her promising, solid, yet not especially high selling debut Until Tomorrow from 2011.
Peterson's previous label 'Talkin' Loud' were responsible, lest we forget, for some of the finest jazz influenced soul records of the last 25 yearsthink of the landmark Road to Freedom by the Young Disciples, or Creating Patterns by 4Hero, or even Nu Yorican Soul's eponymous one-off project, to name but three. McFarlane appears to appreciate the way that her label have handled her career and has spoken warmly of the willingness of Peterson to help her realize her vision. The most obvious example of this is that it was apparently Peterson's suggestion to collaborate with Matthew Halsall, who orchestrated a superlative version of "Angie La La" featuring several of his band and a spellbinding duet with Leron Thomas over a propulsive rhythm.
The song was originally written by reggae producer Duke Reid for Nora Dean and is one of a trio of excellent covers that are a useful signpost to McFarlane's key musical inspirations. Of the others "Plain Gold Ring" is the most straightforward broadly following the memorable version by the young Nina Simone, yet finding space for some fine multitracked vocal harmonies along the way. The track getting all of the attention, however, is the killer cover of Junior Murvin's roots classic "Police and Thieves." McFarlane keeps the melody and moral, observational, tone of Murvin's original lyric in her vocal but adds a fabulous understated jazz swing underneath that takes the song into a completely different musical context. In its way this is as different and radical a reinterpretation of the original as the Clash's 1977 garage band cover, but maybe you just have to have a song that good in the first place. Mention must also be made of a fabulous tenor saxophone solo courtesy of Binker Golding that lifts the performance adding energy to the mix at just the right moment.
None of this would matter a jot had McFarlane not so emphatically delivered the goods on the rest of this wonderful record. The gorgeous "Her Eyes" has that classic Young Disciples feel, perhaps also recalling what 4Hero might have sounded like unplugged; others, such as "You'll Get Me In Trouble" or the narrative ballad "Woman of the Olive Groves," showcase a versatility in both writing and vocal style that balance the collection well.
The glue that holds the collection together throughout these different settings is McFarlane's wonderfully expressive and soulful voice. Ultimately this is a record that you can listen to again and again, one that harks back to a world where soul took inspiration from jazz and not auto-tune. I rather think that 2014 has its first classic.
Open Heart; Her Eyes; Move; You’ll Get Me In Trouble; Police & Thieves;
Spinning Wheel; Plain Gold Ring; Angie La La; The Games We Played; Woman
in the Olive Groves; Love.
Zara McFarlane: vocals (all), piano (6), guitar (4); Peter Edwards:
piano (2, 3, 5, 9, 10, 11); Gavin Barras: Bass (1, 8); Max Luthert:
bass (2, 3, 5, 7, 10); Moses Boyd: drums (3, ; Andy Chapman: drums (2,
10); Taz Modi: drums (8); Binker Golding: tenor saxophone (10); Leron
Thomas: trumpet (8); Rachel Gladwin: harp (8).