Zara McFarlane returned to the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival with a well attended performance at The George Square Spiegeltent. This was my first time listening to her music live, and I was expecting so much from this MOBO-winning singer and winner of the Jazz FM 2018 vocalist award. Currently on tour and with a new album out “Arise”, Zara should have been performing on the Spiegeltent stage to let everyone in the audience know that Zara McFarlane had arrived in Edinburgh. Instead, what we got was a 90 minute set that seemed at times not to be hitting the mark with her audience.
Probably the biggest problem for me (and some people around me that I spoke to after the show) was starting the audience participation with the very first song “Peace Begins Within”. The response was let’s say not too enthusiastic. Any audience participation is always going to be a difficult “hit or miss”, but to attempt it with a song that was perhaps unfamiliar to many people was perhaps not a good show opening idea. Instead of accepting that maybe this audience had come to listen rather than participate, another three or four attempts throughout the evening on songs at more audience participation worked with limited results of varying degrees.
This was a very odd show full of many contrasts. Some of the earlier songs seemed to be taking Zara into a vocal range that was higher than she seemed comfortable with, but when Zara got into her true vocal comfort zone, the results were interesting. At times long solos from the band reduced the time available for Zara’s vocals too, and combining this with the “audience participation”, I got to hear far less of Zara McFarlane the singer than I wanted to.
Zara is a lady rightly proud of her British-Jamaican identity and her musical connections to both cultures, so when Zara blends jazz and reggae music together, the fusion is something original whilst still retaining the identities of both. A classic performance of the Congos’ “Fisherman” was one of the show highlights for me (I have always liked that song) displaying what Zara’s vocals are truly capable of. Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” has been a long time favourite of mine and I have heard so many covers and variants of this song over the years (few ever coming close though to the version by The Clash). This jazz cover version I will have to take a little time to take to my heart though.
The evening of course was not devoted to cover versions, but mostly to the new album, and there are some fine songs here that let Zara explore with her voice many different styles of music. One of my favourite tracks from the new album, and another of this show’s highlights was “Silhouette”. When Zara McFarlane is good, she is very, very good.
Overall, a bit of a mixed show for me. For various reasons, things did not seem to be coming together perfectly here but, when they did, what was evident was the smooth and stylish sounds of Zara and her band mixed with an effortless shift in gear to reggae beats. Many of these sounds took me back to hearing much of the music of my earlier music days of the 1970s. Those days may have passed long ago, but Zara McFarlane has somehow managed to re-create the very feeling of that music, and that does not mean that this is retro music, I mean that the sounds of one era have become the roots of something new and relevant today.
To be absolutely fair to Zara McFarlane, I need to try and catch up with more of her shows when possible and get a better insight into her song repertoire and vocal abilities as there were many clues here to other vocal travels I would like to explore with Zara.
Adding hugely to the sound tonight though, was one of the sweetest saxophone sounds that I have heard in a long time, and that sound often became the main sound for me on-stage.
Review by Tom King