mon 22/07/2024

Album: Zara McFarlane - Sweet Whispers: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan | reviews, news & interviews

Album: Zara McFarlane - Sweet Whispers: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan

Album: Zara McFarlane - Sweet Whispers: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan

McFarlane's best album to date

When Zara McFarlane sang the National Anthem at this year’s FA Cup Final, it served as a reminder of quite how adaptable she is, how suited so many different contexts.

Other work in recent years has been with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Glyndebourne, and her last album, Songs of an Unknown Tongue (Brownswood), was a collaboration with producers Kwake Bass and Wu-Lu which the label’s blurb calls “a futuristic sound palate” (sic) of Jamaican rhythms and electronica.

Sweet Whispers: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan (Eternal Source Of Light/!K7 Records) is totally different from its predecessor. It is a jazz album, unashamedly so, and brings to the fore Zara McFarlane as an interpreter rather than creator of the material. The ease, the assuredness, the joy of all of these performances are addictive. There isn’t a weak track. Perhaps freedom from the responsibility to break genre boundaries has been liberating. Perhaps the opportunity to pay homage to a personal idol has been a blessing. For whatever reason, it all works. She says that “Mean to Me” is her favourite Sarah Vaughan song, and the mood she finds in it is sublime.

There is also the context for the album. It was recorded live-to-tape using the vintage equipment at Durham Sound Studios in Chalk Farm, and has a core of musicians from the Kansas Smitty’s set-up. The album is produced by their clarinettist/ saxophonist Giacomo Smith, who also puts in some stunning solo work, including a spectacular bit of clarinet fingerbusting on “Great Day” which turns it into a jamboree.

Kansas Smitty’s are a remarkable outfit, and one of the keys to their success is that musicians such as bassist Ferg Ireland and pianist Joe Webb have such vast accumulated experience of working together. From the first sound to the last, one can simply feel those miles on the clock, the mutual trust that comes from having played a lot together. Both “Stardust” and “Tenderly” keep an underlying three-versus four rhythmic instability alive, and it is incredibly effective. And that is also a tribute to the flawless work of drummer Jas Kayser. I remember her as a complete revelation on the Kansas Smitty’s album Plunderphonia from 2021. Back then, she was fresh back from Berklee and studies with Ralph Peterson and Terri Lyne Carrington. She is on stellar form here.

There is real inventiveness in these new arrangements too. For the original Sarah Vaughan version of “The Mystery of Man” Gene Lees’s lyrics were mired in a reverential orchestral swamp created by Lalo Shifrin. This new version has an ensemble of jaunty multi-tracked bass clarinets. They bring an unexpected sprightliness. Sometimes, one feels, spirituality needs that kind of kick. And there is plenty of variety too: I have found that Marlon Hibbert’s intervention on steel pans in “Obsession” brings a smile at every listen, and Gabriella Swallow’s cello backings in the title track give just the right kind of sparseness over which McFarlane can soar free. Thoroughly recommended!

The ease, the assuredness, the joy of all of these performances are addictive

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Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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