Live Review: Zara McFarlane at The Komedia
The Komedia, Brighton
Saturday 28th March, 2018
The night outside may be freezing but there’s already a decent sized crowd gathered under the Komedia’s notoriously low ceiling and support act Thabo is doing his utmost to warm them up. He gives a lesson in effortless charisma, and despite appearing with just a pianist in support he easily fills the whole stage with his expansive personality and measured nu-soul stylings.
Zara McFarlane’s band play her on in true showbiz style with a piece of energetic jazz funk, with plenty of space for her to riff and scat and for pianist and musical director Peter Edwards and sax man of the moment Binker Golding to toss some trades back and forth with the assurance of star basketball players. Then bassist Jihad Darwish picks up his acoustic and we’re off into Pride, played as a sultry afro 12/8 groove, winding through the long cascading vocal melodies before exploding into a drum/sax duet of the sort that Binker’s been successfully exploring with Moses Boyd – the excellent Sam Jones on kit proves that he’s fully up to the job, and the crowd are onside with whoops and hollers. Then there’s Freedom Chain , featuring plenty of long jam-outs from Edwards on funked-up rhodes, while the rhythm section deploy a kind of mutant reggae that’s hip and tight enough to avoid jazz-funk cliches. Allies And Enemies is delivered with just Darwish on bass guitar and Jones on trigger pads, to showcase Zara’s supple, clear-toned and accurate vocals and allow her to unleash some of her jazz chops. She steers clear of the kind of gospel-inflected dramatic affectations that are current in some contemporary jazz-and-related-music circles and the results are refreshingly unhyped, personal and sincere sounding.
The band can really play, and a substantial amount of the set is given over to loose, free-flowing jamming over heavy bass lines, with a kind of open West Coast Get Down vibe, big-toned angular sax solos, lots of bravura work from the drumkit, and a ton of palpable fun and good humour. It’s not all groove material – a version of Row Fisherman Row over bowed bass and muted drums and piano gets heartfelt applause from the crowd, and Darwish even gets a superbly creative solo on stand-up bass, egged on by offstage exhortations from the rest of the band. Zara is a warm and friendly onstage presence and when she leads into some co-ordinated song-and-dance participation the whole room joins in with a will. Police And Thieves is a sure crowd pleaser, a new track written by Boyd and Shabaka Hutchings extends into another potent reggae-flavoured workout, and there’s a triumphant return on Fussing And Fighting to conclude the night. Zara McFarlane has a great onstage presence and a terrific band to back it up; the set brims over with vibes and joyful, expansive energy. There’s a balance to be struck between showcasing her characterful individual voice while still allowing the communal talents of the band to flourish; Gregory Porter has this down to a fine art, and it’ll be interesting to see how the show develops when they return form their upcoming schedule of international touring.
[Photo of Zara McFarlane by Lisa Wormsley]