Gig review: Zara McFarlane at Howard Assembly Rooms, Leeds

Zara McFarlane at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds. Picture: Tom Arber
Zara McFarlane at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds. Picture: Tom Arber
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Mobo-winning jazz star Zara McFarlane kept it low-key on her Leeds tour date as she showcased latest album Arise.

Opera North’s exclusive-feeling Howard Assembly Rooms is ensconced within the lofts of Leeds’ Grand Theatre, its politely-packed seats a contrast with the cold streets below.

Zara McFarlane at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds. Picture: Tom Arber

Zara McFarlane at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds. Picture: Tom Arber

McFarlane’s rise comes at the front of the wave seeing jazz more popular and accessible than ever before, and tonight’s show was strong with heady influences such as Nina Simone and Lauryn Hill as she flitted between the modern and grimy and not-really-jazz, and the more traditional and slick and this-is-so-jazz. Nods to her love of reggae, the London scene, and her African Caribbean heritage were clear throughout as she led a full band through this set.

Fussin’ and Fightin’, and Allies or Enemies, once McFarlane’s own perfectly-harmonised, off-kilter loops were complete, held the crown in pin-drop silence, as with In Between Worlds adding to her regaled tales. But this tightly-performed number, albeit looking like everything an award-winner should put out, didn’t have me convinced. As a self-confessed ‘sad lad’, I like to believe the words being sung are feel, to feel them, and this slick show felt too polished for any heartbreak to shine through. Was she warming up?

McFarlane’s delightful vocal range rose and fell up on tracks from her latest album Arise, such as the reggae-infused Freedom Chain, which translated to an extended version full of band solos, she herself enchanted by her own song.

Many highlights, however, included a delicate cover of Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves – a beautiful, slow-paced nod to the 1977 reggae which was led by a dramatic double-bass introduction. Both Fisherman and Silhouette set the hairs on my arms dancing at the absolute power that McFarlane holds over her voice, effortlessly telling stories.

From the bold to the ice-delicate fragile, McFarlane’s shapeshifting vocals brought the London jazz scene’s intensity to Leeds for one night. The traditional returned with an unobvious stage exit and encore – All Africa saw a saxophone-filled and danced-out finale, before the band held hands and thanked the audience.

A bit too long an odyssey for an introduction to jazz, but an astounding show of McFarlane’s intoxicatingly warm performance. And the most perfect part? Not a single phone in the audience. Not a single screen. McFarlane performed to the whites of eyes, without a storymaker or selfie-taker in sight. Sometimes, traditional is best.

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