Zara McFarlane’s debut album, 2011’s Until Tomorrow, came garlanded with rave reviews and a MOBO award nomination, and heralded a major new talent in the world of British jazz.
Her follow-up, also recorded for Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings label, is a more ambitious collection that draws on wider influences: from the deep spiritual jazz of Pharoah Sanders to dub and reggae.
“With the first album,” says Zara, “I was trying to create a cohesive sound, one that used the same line up and the same instrumentation throughout. This time the focus is on the songwriting, and the arrangements are tailor-made to suit each song. If there is a unified, cohesive theme, it’s in the lyrics: the songs represent a journey through a woman’s life.”
Gilles Peterson has been a key figure in Zara’s career. “He has been an incredibly enthusiastic person to work with,” says Zara. “With the first album, I’d recorded most of it before he’d signed me, but this time he’s been more involved in its creation and made suggestions. He’s passionate about all kinds of music, not just jazz, which has allowed me to experiment with different sounds.”
Zara McFarlane was born 31 years ago into a Jamaican family in Essex. She grew up in a household that loved reggae as well as the R&B of Michael Jackson and Luther Vandross.
She was educated at a local comprehensive before moving to the BRIT School in Croydon in her sixth-form to study Musical Theatre. “I fell in love with musicals and learned tons of old showtunes,” says Zara. “I quickly realised that they were also jazz standards, and I always preferred the jazz versions!” After her degree, Zara studied jazz and improvisation at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama.
When not working on her own material, Zara has performed as a featured vocalist in Gary Crosby’s ska orchestra Jazz Jamaica, and with esteemed British jazzers such as Orphy Robinson, Denys Baptiste and Soweto Kinch. She’s fronted Italian DJ Nicola Conte’s big band, performed at a Nina Simone tribute concert in Amsterdam and played support for South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, Dianne Reeves and American singer Gregory Porter. Zara also won the MOBO Award Best Jazz Act 2014.