Jazz embodies a tension between rough and smooth, beautiful and dissonant, rhythmic and arrhythmic, which is one of its defining characteristics, a sine qua non. The complex nature of this opposition, however, is that each binary is always already contained fractally within the other — Billie Holiday’s ragged vocals over smooth trumpets, art jazz’s warping near-beyond-recognition of American Songbook standards, or even the fact that arrhythmia depends for its existence on a pre-existing rhythm, the blue note on a major scale.
Where swing(-devolving-into-smooth) jazz is now seen as the “prettier” end of the spectrum in relation to the free-jazz tradition, I needn’t rehearse overmuch how in its time early jazz was reviled, both by racist white society and, notoriously, by highbrow critics like Theodor Adorno (even if the latter deserves a hefty asterisk).
What sets Zara McFarlane apart, as well as the sheer gorgeousness and atmosphere of her voice and settings, is that she performs an Hegelian synthesis on these tendencies. Pieces begin deceptively, as simple (though beautiful) songs, à la Diana Krall, as if all will be smooth sailing, like the glorious inception of a doomed love affair — then hit an iceberg and fall apart while coming together in atonal cacophony that ruptures and returns.
Those contrasts echo the frivolous tragedy of Peggy Lee. But another tower of song, Nina Simone, was a mistress of this contradistinction, and McFarlane delivers a hypnotic cover of her “Plain Gold Ring” (penned by George Stone, but made famous by Simone — and also a Nick Cave favorite, hinting at the sometimes-glimpsed darker depths of If You Knew Her). Meanwhile, her version of Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” adduces a desire to step “outside” the world of intimate emotions and depoliticized jazz, to comment on the desolation of her native England post-GFC, a stepping into the lineage of “Strange Fruit” and of Simone’s civil rights activism, with a particularly contemporary-retro twist inasmuch as this occurs through a cover.
Too, McFarlane’s reggae influences (the album also features an interpretation of Nora Dean’s “Angie La La”) evidence a certain dubby sensibility, an interest in fractured space and in genre/disruption, on show throughout the album. Reminiscent, then, of Bristol trip-hop: appropriate opener “Open Heart,” a gorgeous vocal line with something of the sacredness of a capella over hypnotic steelpans, is an “Unfinished Sympathy” for a more world-wearied age.
If You Knew Her is McFarlane’s second album; she has contrasted this with her first, Until Tomorrow, as less cohesive as a piece (that ragged-vs-smooth thing again). The songs here are each separate, lonely or transcendent, self-absorbed and distinct, without the background, café-soundtrack quality of so many modern jazz singers: fleeting, melancholy, and dangerous creatures from Borges’ imaginary bestiary. Yet humans are creatures too, and the album is linked intimately (in all kinds of senses) to humanity:
If there’s a unified cohesive theme, it’s in the lyrics. The songs represent a journey through a woman’s life … This album is dedicated to all the strong, beautiful women who have touched my life with their strength, courage, empathy, humour, wisdom & love.
The latter sentiment is perhaps best exemplified on the sultry, haunting “Woman in the Olive Groves,” which might be conceived as an answer-song to Frances Cornford’s “To A Fat Lady Seen From A Train,” defiance and longing bound up with a characteristically subtle and socio-political twist.
Baby, it’s cold outside — and McFarlane waits out there, knocking on the frost-starred window pane, breathing warm.