Zara McFarlane bittersweet and beautiful at XOYO

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Invigoration of tradition by means subtle rather than radical was the guiding principle of this performance by an artist of rapidly growing stature. Thirty year-old east London vocalist Zara McFarlane makes no secret of her admiration for the likes of Ella, Sarah and Nina but she has found a way of skillfully extending their legacies, deploying a poised but potent acoustic quartet – anchored by the drums and bass twin engine of Moses Boyd and Max Luthert and buoyed by Peter Edwards’ keys and Binker Golding’s tenor sax – to blend jazz and soul with understated African rhythms and non-western timbres.

While the reprise of Junior Murvin’s ‘Police And Thieves’, with its inventive adaptation of the original roots reggae pulse to lithe, wistful swing, drew the most audible bout of youtube recognition, something of a rarity at a jazz gig, it was the introduction of Manu Delago’s hang to the ensemble that brought a cathedral-like silence of admiration. Tonally, the instrument very loosely recalls the steel pan but Delago elicited an array of spindly, high pitches and damp, woody thuds to create the illusion of a bongo and marimba being played simultaneously. This provided a stunning backdrop for the delicacy of McFarlane’s voice on a spirited version of Simone’s ‘Plain Gold Ring’, but if the singer impressed with the absolute control of both her upper range and focused shifts of tempo, she had the audience swooning when she plunged to the bluesy low tones on the chorus of ‘You’ll Get Me In Trouble’.

Technical excellence aside, McFarlane greatly engaged as a storyteller and lyric writer, falling somewhere between the sharp observational prowess of Carmen Lundy and the hard-edged reality tales of Abbey Lincoln. The amusingly wry ‘old partner new squeeze’ dilemma ‘Better Than Mine’ brought many nods of empathy while ‘Woman In The Olive Groves’, a sobering meditation on the desolate life of a black prostitute in Italy made the point that McFarlane will not refrain from subject matter that the mainstream shirks. Which is why her emergence is necessary.

– Kevin Le Gendre