Zara McFarlane

If You Knew Her

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The title doesn't refer strictly to its maker. MOBO-nominated jazz producer, songwriter, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist Zara McFarlane: "This album is dedicated to all the strong, beautiful women who have touched my life with their strength, courage, empathy, humour, wisdom & love." Those women seem to have had the greatest effect on McFarlane originals like the burning ballad "Woman in the Olive Groves" and the particularly gorgeous "Her Eyes," in which McFarlane's breezy melodies resemble those of '70s Stevie Wonder. Some of the arrangements are stripped to bare essentials. Those happen to occur during the album's most emotionally vulnerable moments. "Open Heart" begins the album in arresting style with hypnotic hang drums, a low double-bass thrum, and McFarlane's wounded, wise vocals. On "You'll Get Me in Trouble," McFarlane accompanies herself on barely strummed acoustic guitar: "It's too late, my heart's already seen your smile." While the eight originals could form a rich 35-minute album, the three non-originals here stun, too. There's a bewitching "Plain Gold Ring" closer to restrained Nina Simone than showy Kimbra, a version of Junior Murvin's "Police & Thieves" that makes like a missing ice-and-fire cut off Dee Dee Bridgewater's Afro Blue, and top standout "Angie La La" (aka "Ay Ay Ay Ay"), barely recognizable. The last of the trio, originally written and produced by reggae giant Duke Reid for Nora Dean, is converted into a dancing and feverish duet -- anchored by Gavin Barras' double bass and enlivened by Rachel Gladwin's harp -- with an excellent pairing in trumpeter and vocalist Leron Thomas. As with Until Tomorrow, McFarlane produced the whole thing -- an understated yet dazzling second album that is more imaginative than the impressive first.

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