Zara McFarlane stretches out at Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho

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Singer and composer Zara McFarlane played to sold-out crowds at Pizza Express Jazz Club in London’s Soho on 18-19 July, presenting a well-crafted set of originals from her second album, If You Knew Her, in a performance that became more gripping over the course of the two nights. Given the diversity of sounds and textures on the album, the material transferred strongly to a conventional jazz quintet instrumentation, with a band featuring tenorist Binker Golding, pianist Peter Edwards, double bassist Jay Darwish and drummer Moses Boyd.

After recording and touring together extensively following the release of If You Knew Her, the group’s musical and personal rapport was immediately obvious, with a deeply visceral understanding of McFarlane’s material. Each band member made good use of their opportunities to feature, striking a balance between staying close to McFarlane’s compositions in their original form and stretching out in improvisations. The complex rhythms and fiery intensity of Binker Golding’s Coltrane-inspired solo inflections were matched superbly by Edwards and particularly by Boyd, who may have the strongest affinity with Golding’s personality as a soloist, having just unveiled their new duet project Dem Ones. Edwards displayed an influence of Herbie Hancock in the harmonic complexity of his solos, also excelling as an accompanist and rhythm section member.

Although McFarlane has few scat solos on the album, she improvised far more frequently playing live, giving the songs a new freshness and uniting her with the rest of her ensemble, playing as much of a solo instrumentalist’s role as well as those of the band’s singer and composer. A particular highlight was an improvised scat and drum duet in ‘Angie-La-La’, trading phrases and building in intensity to thrilling effect. McFarlane’s obvious engagement with other instrumentalists’ solos was a pleasure to see, remaining centre stage to visibly engage with other band members’ features, exercising humility in shifting the audience’s focus away from herself and her material and towards her band mates. For the most part, McFarlane’s stage persona is relaxed and serene. Her addresses to the audience were light and personable, and she remained totally composed throughout the written parts of her songs, while during solo sections her use of vocal effects and wordless, animal-like calls added energy to Binker Golding’s muscular post-bop lines.

Zara McFarlane gave a technically assured rendition of the material from her latest album, whilst also instilling lots more energy into the music for a live performance with the help of her superb band, comprising some of the most compelling young jazz performers on the London scene. Without doubt one to watch for the future.

– Ed Rice