FEED THE SPIRIT
Jazz singer Zara McFarlane, who was first noticed as a talented vocalist with the Jazz Jamaica AllStars duetting on ‘Ma Cherie Amour’, has just released her debut recording having been signed to Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label recently. Peter Quinn talks to an artist at ease with herself and someone who has something to sing about in her songs
The first thing you notice is the wonderfully pure vocal timbre. Next you start to appreciate the singular approach to melody and the unerring relationship with the pulse. But, listening to Zara McFarlane’s 10-track debut album, Until Tomorrow, what comes across most forcibly is the singer’s powerful storytelling gift. Meeting Zara before her evening gig at The Spice of Life, it comes as no surprise to discover that her favourite singer is the storyteller nonpareil, Nina Simone.
With a musical CV that includes collaborations with Denys Baptiste, Orphy Robinson, Soweto Kinch, Hugh Masekela and Jazz Jamaica All-Stars – she appeared on the latter’s 2006 Motown-themed album Motor City Roots – the album has been a long time in the pipeline. The singer first thought of making an album as long as 10 years ago, so for it to hit the streets feels like a missing piece of the UK jazz scene has finally been filled in. And like a fine 10-year-old malt whiskey, the recording offers a far greater depth of flavour than any wannabe jazz chanteuse could hope to achieve.
The singer brings to the debut an absolute wealth of formal music study that includes three years at the Brit School, where she specialised in what is her passion, musical theatre. “It was an amazing experience,” she tells me. “I loved every minute of it. I want to write a musical one day, that’s one of my plans.” Further study took her to Vocaltech at Thames Valley University, where she became more involved with jazz. “My link into jazz was that I recognised a lot of the songs because they were from musicals.” After her undergraduate degree in popular music, she met the Dune Records team of Gary Crosby and Janine Irons and started working with Tomorrow’s Warriors – whose line-up then included the likes of Nathaniel Facey, Jay Phelps,
Shaney Forbes – and Jazz Jamaica. This was invaluable experience, but left the singer feeling that she had a bit of catching up to do. “I felt I
didn’t know anything about jazz,” she confesses. “I wanted to delve deeper into what it was about.”
That delving deeper involved enrolling at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, a period of study which she views with a degree of ambivalence. “For me, personally, I learnt more being in the other bands and working alongside different musicians, than studying the music in the way that it was taught. But I learnt a lot about composition arranging.”
Perhaps the ambivalence can partly be explained by the singer’s very personal approach to the writing process, one of the things that makes
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SOMEONE LIKE YOU
Josh Kyle takes it higher, influenced by Chet Baker, Jimmy Scott and Carmen McRae. Acknowledging his influences is one thing but this jazz vocal newcomer is already making a mark with his debut recording, says Peter Quinn
If having Claire Martin herald the arrival of your debut album with the words “a remarkable career is about to unfold” seems like undue pressure, twentysomething Australian singer Josh Kyle seems decidedly unfazed. “I’m really looking forward to releasing the album, actually,” he tells me. “Geoff [Gascoyne] and I have been putting this together for a while so I’m ready to have it out there and see how people respond to it. There are some nerves, having never released an album before, but they soon disappear. The name of the album, Possibilities, isn’t just the name of one of the tracks but also became the idea behind creating the project.”
Hailing from a tiny place called Smithtown in New South Wales, Australia (population: 500, chances of hearing jazz: zero), the singer gained a degree in music from the Australian Institute of Music in Sydney, where he studied with saxophonist Sean Coffin. But it was a live recording by one of Australia’s leading jazz vocalists Vince Jones, Live At The Basement, which really got him hooked on the music. “I’m sure many wouldn’t recognise the name, but those who do really know how great this guy is. When I first moved over to London one of the first questions I was asked was had I listened to a lot of Vince Jones growing up. He’s a very soulful jazz singer who also plays trumpet, a voice like elastic and a killer range. I still listen to the album today — there’s always something to learn from listening to Vince.”
Kyle first came London in 2009 – it was also his first trip outside Australia – and recalls that his debut gig was sitting in with Claire Martin at Chelsea’s 606 Club at a benefit for guitarist Jim Mullen. “Nothing like jumping in at the deep end, with most of London’s best in the same room,” Kyle recalls. “It was one of those times I knew I had to really step up. I’d just met Claire that same week as I had a singing lesson with her. To this day, I
16 NOVEMBER11 // Jazzwise Until Tomorrow such a uniquely rewarding listening experience. “I tend to be inspired by anything other than music, which a lot of people find strange,” Zara explains.
“At Guildhall I would hear about how other people wrote, how they’d be inspired to write a piece based on one of their favourite jazz pieces. They might find a phrase that they like and develop it, which is cool and something I’ve begun to learn more about. But that’s not how I write. Sometimes I have a strong scenario of what I want to write about in my head already. It might be a picture, it might be something that someone said and I think, yeah, I can understand that feeling, and then I explore what that feeling is. Sometimes it’s a story I might have read or the news. But it’s very rarely a piece of music.”
This strong sense of scenario, a kind of selfcontained snapshot of time, place or experience, is felt immediately in the album’s lead-off song, ‘More Than Mine’. It sounds for the world like a song that comes from personal experience. “It is and it isn’t, it’s strange,” she tells me. “Obviously it’s about when you’ve broken up with someone and you see them with somebody else. I’ve experienced that, I’ve experienced those feelings. It’s partly about that. But it’s also partly about”. The singer hesitates. “I was in a relationship”, she continues, “and by the end of it I didn’t feel that I was myself any more. There’s a double meaning in a way, because I’m talking about that other person but it’s actually myself. I felt that I’d lost part of myself, the fun part of myself. So you were seeing this other person and thinking I want to get back to being that person. How do I get back to what I once was before?” Other songs resonate just as forcefully: the three different characters that inhabit ‘Mama Done’ (a narrative idea which itself recalls Nina Simone’s ‘Four Women’), the deceits of the title track, and the cautionary biblical tale of ‘Blossom Tree’.
The other fascinating element of the debut – released on Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings – is the brace of tracks based on instrumentals by the late US pianist and composer, Harry Whitaker (1942-2010). An erstwhile member of Roy Ayers’ Ubiquity (he arranged and performed on ‘We Live In Brooklyn Baby’), musical director for Roberta Flack, and composer of the cult classic album Black Renaissance, reissued in 2002 by Ubiquity Records, Peterson introduced the singer to Whitaker’s trio album Thoughts (Past and Present). “His playing reminded me of Peter’s playing” – Zara’s pianist and co-arranger, Peter Edwards – “so I felt quite connected with it”. Zara’s vocalese versions of Whitaker’s ‘The Children And The Warlock’ (renamed ‘Feed The Spirit’ on the album) and ‘Thoughts’ (renamed ‘Waking Sleep’) are both standouts. The singer appears to have been especially taken with the former. “I explored ideas like the Pied Piper – taking the children away. It’s got kind of a magical quality to it, the way that he did it. I don’t know if we captured that, but we tried. I put the vocalese to his solo, and I tried to listen to what ‘words’ he was saying.” An idea for a musical, perhaps?
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don’t know what made her respond to my out of the blue email requesting a lesson, but I’m glad she did. Ever since then, Claire has continued to be so supportive and giving of her time. She told me I should go and have a lesson and hang with London’s best male jazz vocalist, Mr Ian Shaw, who was kind enough to give me Geoff Gascoyne’s number. I called him up, went over to his house, listened to some music and pretty much decided to start working together.”
Besides Vince Jones, Kyle cites a handful of other vocalists who have been a key influence in the formation of his style in terms of sound, tone and intent. “Chet Baker has always been a real inspiration. Hearing a softer, higher pitched male voice I think really stuck with me as my voice is similar in range. His phrasing was always so cool. Even Chet in his later years, when things were less polished, still sang so beautifully. I’ve listened to a lot of Carmen McRae. Her sound is so distinct and hard hitting. She had a real instrument, such control, but she was also very emotional as well. Jimmy Scott, Betty Carter, Johnny Hartman are all killing singers. I’m also a big fan of soul music as well – singers like D’Angelo, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and Stevie Wonder.”
Possibilities nicely balances standards, vocalese and the newly composed. Alongside ‘Stardust’ (“my all-time favourite song”), ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ (“my Chet influence, a song I’ve been singing for years”) and ‘’Round Midnight’ (“as far as ballads go you don’t get much better than this”), Kyle dips into the jazz repertoire and chooses a fascinatingly diverse collection of instrumentals which he gives the vocalese treatment. Penning new lyrics to Victor Feldman’s ‘Joshua’ (renamed as the album’s title track) might have been something of a no-brainer. But Kyle also gets to lyrical grips with Larry Willis’ ‘The Prize’, Wayne Shorter’s ‘Yes And No’ (a duet with Claire Martin featuring a typically deft Jim Mullen solo), Jimmy Rowles’ ‘502 Blues’ and Herbie Hancock’s ‘Actual Proof’. As the singer notes matter-of-factly: “If I want to sing these tunes I need to write the lyrics, so I did”. Two originals co-written with bassist, producer and arranger Geoff Gascoyne, ‘Save The World’ and ‘Roll On’, suggest a fruitful writing partnership in the making.
Listening through to the entire album in one sitting serves to confirm the impression that Kyle really is that rara avis: a singer who possesses, as Ian Shaw puts it, “the fearless improvising gene”. And it’s that strong sense of improvisational freedom that makes this debut such a remarkable achievement, aesthetically speaking. He’s not trying to be Sinatra, there’s nothing ersatz, second hand or passé to be found here. Kyle’s singing may draw the listener into a labyrinth of musical memories, but he never sounds anything other than himself.
Currently playing on the singer’s iPod is Robert Glasper’s Double Booked – “one of the hippest things I’ve heard,” he says – an album which divides neatly down the middle between Glasper’s Trio and Experiment projects. Also providing inspiration is Avishai Cohen’s latest album, Seven Seas.
“It’s really beautiful – the wordless vocal parts intertwining with the other instruments is something I’m really interested in.” The singer also recently picked up The Bad Plus album For All I Care, which features Minneapolis vocalist Wendy Lewis. Among other claims to fame, it’s surely the only jazz album to include both The Bee Gees (‘How Deep Is Your Love’) and avant-gardist Milton Babbitt (‘Semi-Simple Variations’) on the same track list. “I’m listening to a lot of vocal-led projects at the moment,” Kyle notes. “I’m just really into hearing how other people are pushing the envelope with vocal music and how it’s really opening up.”
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